One of the most pervasive native groundcovers around is Yarrow, and quite possibly one of the most adaptable. Popular around the world and native or endemic to all of North America, it is likely that you’ve encountered Yarrow at least at some point in your travels!
I first discovered Yarrow some 6 years ago growing amongst my grass where it survived a couple years of repeated mowing while it slowly spread across my yard, finally reaching my backyard micro-prairie. Upon reaching the micro-prairie, where nearly all plants are welcome, it promptly bloomed and I then identified it. Needless to say I was quite pleased to have a free native find it’s way to my yard. I since have encouraged it to spread, as I’m all about feeding our pollinators.
In this article:
- What is Yarrow
- What are the pros and cons of Yarrow
- Identification / Characteristics
- How to grow and care for Yarrow
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect Yarrow
- Where to buy Yarrow
- Uses of Yarrow
- Final thoughts
What is Yarrow
Yarrow is a perennial wildflower native to North America. Scientifically known as Achillea millefolium, it will grow 1-3′ tall in full sun and spreads via seed and rhizomes. Blooming white clusters of small 1/4″ flowers for approximately four weeks in early Summer, Yarrow attracts numerous species of bees, wasps, and other pollinators.
One of the most adaptable plants in the world, Yarrow can grow in nearly any soil texture. It just needs some access to sun, and to avoid excessively moist conditions.
Yarrow is an aggressive spreader
This tiny, yet aggressive spreader can get weedy in formal flowerbeds. But, it is one of the ‘non-grass’ plants that can survive a lawnmower and still occasionally bloom (depending on the mowing frequency). Nonetheless it’s utility as a groundcover must be balanced against it’s aggressive nature.
In a manner of three years I had an isolated patch in the center of my lawn spread to my wildflower garden, which was approximately 30′ away. Now I don’t consider this a problem, as although the foliage clearly isn’t grass, it blends well together. But it illustrates how well this plant can spread in the face of stiff competition (from turf grass).
Native Range of Yarrow
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as a species is native nearly everywhere in North America. However this range includes both the Western variety and the variety native to Europe and Asia.
The native Range of the species Yarrow covers the entirety of North America. There are two varieties of Yarrow that inhabit North America. And both are present in every state and lower province of Canada. One, Achillea millefolium L. var. millefolium is native to Europe while the Western Yarrow, Achillea millefolium L. var. occidentalis. (See here for more on the difference between species, cultivars and varieties)
Difference between Western and common Yarrow
Although both the same species, there are some key physical differences between the eastern and western variety of Yarrow.
Western Yarrow tends to be less aggressive, shorter and blooms earlier (late Spring-early Summer) than Common Yarrow. Also, the stem of Western Yarrow tends to be more hairy than Common Yarrow. 
Yarrow Reference Table
|Scientific Name||Achillea millefolium|
|Common Name(s)||Yarrow, Milfoil, Poor Man’s Pepper,|
|Native Range, USDA Zone||North America, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9|
|Bloom Duration, Color||Four weeks, white flowers|
|Spacing / Spread||2-3′|
|Light Requirements||Full sun|
|Soil Types||Sandy to clay|
|Moisture||Dry to medium-moisture|
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts||Bees, butterflies, pollinating flies, wasps|
What are the Pros and Cons of Yarrow
When in bloom, the flat-topped white flower clusters of Yarrow are very noticeable and showy. The plant can make for a pleasant display. The inflorescence is somewhat similar to Queen Anne’s Lace.
Being on the shorter side (1-3′) Yarrow can fit in spots where height needs to be limited. It can also survive being chopped back to make the plant shorter.
Yarrow attracts a wide variety of pollinators and is good for attracting bees and butterflies to your yard. A wide variety of species are attracted to the nectar. In addition to pollinators, numerous species of insect will feed on the foliage, although it generally still is attractive.
Given space, Yarrow can form a mat-like groundcover. It also is able to survive in a lawn, and slowly spread from one side to another.
There aren’t many plants that can boast about their ability grow in any soil texture, from almost pure sand to clay. But Yarrow can. My backyard is technically sandy loam, but being over-compacted to the point of behaving like clay (and it grows well). While on the flip-side I’ve seen this growing in extremely sandy soil in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
While native ground covers are often considered a benefit, it’s aggressive nature can also be a problem. If planted in formal mulched flowerbeds, one should take steps to limit it’s spread. Otherwise you will be finding this plant everywhere there is open ground.
If fertilized or grown in soil rich in organic matter, Yarrow may flop over on it’s side when blooming. Excessive nitrogen can elongate the stems to the point where they can no longer support the flowerhead. Performing the Chelsea Chop can mitigate this though.
If you do leave an area for Yarrow to sprawl and colonize, it may form an impenetrable mat of stems and leaves. It really is aggressive, and will go where ever there is open space.
Identification and Characteristics of Yarrow
The central stem of Yarrow is pale green and has many small white hairs on it. Generally it will grow about 1-2′ tall (30-60 cm) and may have some branching near the top.
Alternate leaves 3-6″ (7.5-15 cm) long by 1″ wide (2.5 cm) are generally elliptic in shape, pinnate or double-pinnate and fern-like.
I should also note that the foliage (leaves and stems) of Yarrow is fragrant. It has a fresh soapy aroma when crushed or rubbed.
At the end of the stems, flat-topped clusters of flowers will occur (corymbs or panicles). The individual flowers are small, roughly 1/4″ diameter (6 mm) with 5 white petals and yellow centers (corollas).
Blooming generally starts in late spring to early summer, lasting for four weeks. About 4 weeks after blooming has finished, each flowerhead will produce 4-5 seeds (achene) that are thin and oblong.
How to save Yarrow seed
Once the flowerheads start to dry out, the stem will turn brown. Cut the stem and place the flowerhead into a paper bag. Let the flowerheads dry further in a cool, dark, and dry place out of sunlight for about 7 days. Then, the seed heads can be rubbed to release the seed. Seed will store for a couple years in a cool dry place.
The root of Yarrow is fibrous and produces rhizomes. These rhizomes will spread, sprouting new plants as they go.
Being able to differentiate Yarrow from other plants is important, as some people use this plant medicinally. For instance, were one to misidentify Poison Hemlock as Yarrow it could have fatal consequences should they in-turn consume the plant.
Yarrow vs Hemlock
While Yarrow is typically low growing (1-3′) Hemlock can grow to 8′ tall in good conditions. The flowerheads are noticeable different when examined closely, as well as the stalks. Poison Hemlock will have irregular purple splotches along the stalk.
Yarrow vs Queen Anne’s Lace
The leaves of Queen Anne’s Lace are very sparsely pinnate when compared to Yarrow. And the flowers are clearly different under close examination.
Grow and Care for Yarrow
Yarrow will grow best in full sun, which is at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. It can survive in partial sun, which is 2-4 hours per day, although it may not bloom much.
Below is an image of a Yarrow plant I found under partial shade (deep in the Mountains of Southern PA). It was blooming one small flowerhead. I found just a few plants in this area, much less than one normally encounters. As normally when you find one Yarrow in the wild, there are 50 more nearby.
For soil, Yarrow is not picky at all. It can grow well in clay, loam, or even sand. I’m not kidding – I’ve seen it growing in nearly pure sand while on vacation at the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
Yarrow will do best in dry to medium-moist conditions. It doesn’t like excessive moisture.
For maintenance, the key is to plant it in an area that you don’t mind it spreading. Or, when planting you try our ‘anti-rhizome’ planting method.
Also, you may wish to cut the plant back early in the season to reduce it’s height, which will make it less prone to flopping over. This method is known as the Chelsea Chop.
Do not fertilize Yarrow. Doing so will likely cause the flowering stems to flop over and lay down.
Yarrow is aggressive
One of the most aggressive native plants, Yarrow will readily colonize disturbed sites and is considered an early successional species. Eventually, given enough time the plant is often shaded out by other taller native species. Yet it persists and can compete with other low-growing plants, and will easily establish itself in your lawn (even if it never blooms from mowing).
The aggressive nature of Yarrow can mean that it is difficult to control. Mechanical methods can be used on isolated plants, but one must take care that they remove all the root. For larger infestations, mechanical control is not very practical.
Chemical control of Yarrow can be difficult, but some success has been found using various non-selective herbicides such as glyphosate and clopyralid. The problem is, although it is technically a ‘broadleaf’, the leaves of Yarrow can sometimes easily shed any herbicide.
If you notice an infestation of Yarrow where you don’t want it to grow, you need to aggressively try to eliminate it either by digging or herbicide. And you will likely need to repeat treatment into the following season, as the rhizomes can resprout plants, and the seeds can lay dormant for many years.
How to Grow Yarrow from Seed
Yarrow seed has no special cold treatment requirements to break dormancy for germination. It does however need exposure to sunlight and can’t dry out.  Fresh seed can germinate quite quickly, within 8 days if kept moist.
It is best to plant Yarrow seed in very early Spring, as the cooler temperatures will help ensure the soil stays moist. And you really want your container to be in a place that receives morning sun but afternoon shade, which also helps ensure constant moisture.
To germinate Yarrow seed, simply fill a suitable container with moist potting soil and press the seeds into the surface. Place it somewhere that gets morning sunlight, but afternoon shade. Water this container by misting it in the mornings to make sure you don’t wash away the seed, and this will also help avoid damp-off disease. Germination should occur 2-3 weeks after the soil temperatures are 65-75F. If using fresh seed, germination can occur in as little as 5 days. 
When it comes to small seeds that need exposure to sunlight, I will mist them every morning. That really does help ensure constant moisture, while reducing any chance of fungus or drying out by the hot afternoon sun. Water is absorbed/maintained by the soil/seed in the morning, but surface droplets are evaporated by the time the sun moves to the West, leaving the soil still somewhat moist but not wet.
Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Yarrow
Yarrow will attract many different species of pollinators, from bees to butterflies and also pollinating flies. Charles Robertson in his amazing 1929 survey recorded 47 different species. But you can expect to see everything from bumblebees, leaf-cutters, wasps, tachinid flies, blow flies and many more. 
Yarrow also hosts larvae of some beetles and the Yarrow Flower Midge. Furthermore the there are numerous other grasshoppers and insects that will also feed on the foliage.
There are some aphids that will feed on the stems of Yarrow, but these won’t really harm the plant much. And they likely attract predators that help control their numbers.
But while there are many insects that do feed on the leaves, the damage generally isn’t noticeable as Yarrow just produces too much foliage from it’s aggressive nature.
Deer and Rabbits
Yarrow is deer and rabbit resistant. The fragrant foliage apparently doesn’t taste good, and thus almost all herbivores leave it alone.
Yarrow can grow about anywhere but moist soils and humid environments. These facts about it’s preferred growing conditions are clues to know that it can be susceptible to various fungal diseases such as powdery mildew and other forms of mold.
If you find your Yarrow has powdery mildew, try to improve the airflow to the flowers. If you notice any other form of fungus, you may need to check the soil drainage. And amend the soil with compost to improve the drainage.
Where you can buy Yarrow
Native Yarrow is not typically sold in nurseries, as it isn’t a typical ‘garden friendly’ plant. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.
There are however many varieties of Yarrow available for sale. While non-native, they will be ecologically similar to native Yarrow in form. However the color will likely be something other than the standard white. And there are many reasons why changing the color could impair bees from seeing the plant, as they see a different spectrum. For more on the topic of using cultivars vs natives & the pros and cons, read our in-depth post on the topic.
Where to buy seeds
We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)
Uses of Yarrow
Yarrow is a natural ground cover (by it’s own nature) or can be used in a situation where a short-growing aggressive plant is desired. It can be used more formally if planted using our rhizome-spread-prevention method.
For companion plants, Yarrow will grow well with other species that like full sun and dry-to-medium soil moisture. Some examples would be Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Spotted Bee Balm, Tennessee Coneflower, and Aromatic Aster.
Yarrow (both Europe and North American) have been used medicinally going back thousands of years. It is also used as an herb for making tea or spice, and has been referred to as “‘”poor man’s pepper”.
Native American uses
Yarrow has been used medicinally for thousands of years. For Yarrow native to North America, there are over 350 uses of this plant documented for dozens of tribes.
Some uses of Yarrow:
- Decoction of roots used for stomach troubles or chewed for toothaches
- Infusion of flowerheads were used as a compress for headaches
- Infusion of plant used for liver or kidney troubles
- A poultice was used for open sores and boils
- A tea was made from the leaves
- Infusion of leaves was used as a febrifuge
- Infusion of leaves used to treat cold symptoms
- Leaves were chewed and juices swallowed to relieve cough or stomach troubles
Yarrow is an amazing plant that has some incredible abilities, both in how easily it can grow and how widespread it’s use medicinally was/is. This is an amazing native plant that can be used in smart ways for home landscaping to control it’s aggressive nature. It’s flowers can attract a wide variety of insects and pollinators, making it a net positive to have in your yard (if you use it right).
Find more native plants here
 – Rey-Vizgirdas, Edna. Plant of the Week Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). US Forest Service. Accessed 18FEB2023.
 – “Yarrow“, USDA NRCS. Accessed 17FEB2023. https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=ACMIO
 – Winslow, Susan R. WESTERN YARROW Achillea millefolium L. var. occidentalis DC. USDA NRCS Plant Fact Sheet. 2005. Accessed 18FEB2023
 – Achillea millefolium. Efloras. Accessed 18FEB2023.
 – Winslow, Susan R. WESTERN YARROW Achillea millefolium L. var. occidentalis DC. USDA NRCS Plant Guide. 2006. Accessed 18FEB2023
 – Bourdôt, G. W., and R. J. Field. “Review on ecology and control of Achillea millefolium L.(yarrow) on arable land in New Zealand.” New Zealand Journal of Experimental Agriculture 16.2 (1988): 99-108.
 – Sorensen, J. T., and D. J. Holden. “Germination of native prairie forb seeds.” Rangeland Ecology & Management/Journal of Range Management Archives 27.2 (1974): 123-126.
 – Robertson, Charles. “Flowers and insects; lists of visitors of four hundred and fifty-three flowers.” (1928).
 – Achillea millefolium, North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 18FEB2023.
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