Crowning the herb of the year

Winning a title such as “Herb of the Year” is something many plants strive to achieve, but few are bestowed this great honor. One must be deemed outstanding for their decorative, culinary or medical use by the International Herb Association (IHA), and be a favorite among gardeners. Yarrow, a perennial plant known for its long season of showy blooms, while also being drought-tolerant, deer-resistant and a favorite of many native pollinators, has been selected as IHA’s 2024 Herb of the Year.

While yarrow is not native to Illinois, it is found naturalized on roadsides across the state and is happiest growing in well-drained areas that are full sun. Yarrow has several common names, such as old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, milfoil, soldier’s woundwort and thousand seal. Its botanical name, Achillea, was derived from the Greek mythology war hero Achilles, who used the yarrow leaves to stop bleeding and heal wounds during battle, as legend has it.

Its long bloom season (June to September) and distinct gray fern-like, hairy foliage make yarrow a valuable plant for the garden. Although yarrow is a relatively short garden plant, reaching 2-3 feet tall and wide, the stems are known to flop over in hot, humid conditions, or when grown in overly wet or fertile soils. To keep plants more compact, cut back in May before flowers develop or select a cultivar bred for strong stems and compact habit.

Plants can be easily divided and replanted every three years to maintain healthy growth and flower production. Yarrow plants can be aggressive in the garden, spreading by rhizomes (horizontal underground plant stems), or self-seeding, which can develop into large, naturalized clumps in a garden if left unchecked. With their tendency to colonize, these plants make a great addition to rock gardens, cottage gardens, naturalized areas or as a ground cover.

Common yarrow has tiny white flowers in large, flattened clusters, but new cultivars come in a rainbow of colors, including pink, red, cream, yellow and bi-color pastels. The pleasant, spicy fragrance attracts a variety of pollinators to the plant. It is a favorite of bees, wasps, butterflies and moths. To extend the bloom season of yarrow, cut back the plant to the next flower bud after the initial flowers fade; this encourages more blooms while keeping plant growth tidy.

In the language of flowers, a cultural trend to convey messages and emotions in the Victorian era, yarrow symbolized healing and love, making these a perfect gift when offering wishes of “get well soon” to a loved one. Whether gifted to friends or kept for the home, the umbel-shaped flower clusters add dimension and color to cut floral arrangements, and the flowers remain beautiful and vibrant when dried.

For more tried and true garden selections, consider past IHA Plants of the Year: ginger, violas, parsley, anise hyssop, coriander/cilantro and savory. Garden and plant associations use rigorous criteria to recognize favorite and dependable plant selections; select a few winners for your garden to make it a champion of beauty and dependability.