The Casual Gardener: Cool Achilliea
It's one of Ireland's most common wildflowers but cultivated varieties of yarrow can make a great addition to your garden's borders, writes John Manley
I DON’T have to walk too far from home before encountering yarrow in the wild. My stretch of the Co Down coastline, like much of that around Ireland, is replete with this native wildflower. In fact, it proliferates from coast to coast, thriving anywhere it’s spared from livestock grazing or the onslaught of the self-appointed keeper of the roadside verge.
Yarrow's botanical name – Achillea millefolium – derives from the mythical Greek hero Achilles, who according to The Iliad, is said to have treated his soldiers’ wounds with the plant. Yarrow has certainly been proven to have many medicinal applications, including as a clotting agent, and is known in some cultures as ‘nose bleed’ due to its apparent ability to somehow cause and prevent nose bleeds.
According to Irish folklore, it’s a plant that will help ensure a safe journey – there and back.
“Pull 10 leaves of the yarrow and throw one leaf away put the nine others in a white cloth and tie it with a string around your neck,” says the old wives’ tale.
Employing this method will, the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin records, make sure you return safe and won't have any accidents or “see any evil spirits”. Traditionally, those taking livestock to fairs were advised to wear yarrow around their necks to help ensure they fetched a good price for their animals.
In its natural form, the herbaceous yarrow flowers from June to September. The flower heads are flat, umbrella-shaped, dense clusters of small daisy-like flowers which can be white, cream or lilac.
In my own garden I have the cultivar 'Parker's Variety', grown from seed a decade ago. Its numbers are augmented with heel cuttings taken when it's cut back in the spring. I'd originally planned to couple it with crimson scabiosa but I find it works well with the equally arresting Echinops ritro 'Veitch's Blue', the globe thistle.
A friend christened this combo "Leeds' colours", which as a supporter of Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday, unnerved me slightly. Also as a teenager, this blue-yellow combination was the colour of the uniform worn by the girls of St Mary's High School in Downpatrick. Some 30 years later – and with the yellow advisedly ditched by the school some years ago and Leeds United not the force they once were, I'm happy to tolerate it in my brimming borders.
Achillea cultivars lend themselves to informal cottage-style planting schemes because their form is loose and rambling, though the stems rigid enough to remain upright without staking, as long as they are in full sun.
Propagation from seed is quite straightforward and mature plants can be divided in spring.
If the yellow of 'Parkers Variety' doesn't float your boat there are numerous different coloured cultivars to choose from.
:: THREE TASTY YARROW
:: Achillea millefolium 'Strawberry Seduction' This relatively recent yarrow cultivar looks almost good enough to eat. It produces large clusters of deep red flowers with a gold centre on compacted grey-green foliage. When left to dry on the stems the flowers turn buff yellow.
:: Achillea millefolium 'Terracotta' This hybrid cultivar produces flowers that are a seductive apricot fading to creamy yellow on tall rigid stems. Enjoys a full summer flowering period from June through to September.
:: Achillea millefolium 'Casis' Great for filling a gap in a border, 'Casis' produces numerous stems with big cherry red flat flowers. In common with most Achillea, it has a long flowering period and makes a nice cut flower.