The BioGeek Memoirs: Yarrow

Hi. I bet you were looking for another animal, weren’t you? Plants need some love too, you know.

Yarrow from my garden.

Yarrow is a plant that does really well in the climate where I live; actually, it is a plant that is native to Colorado and can be found in many other biomes. It has kind of lacy leaves and produces large flat blooming clusters filled with tiny white (or colored) flowers. The plants that I have in my garden have been produced for the popular market and are nice and showy. The flowers are large, last most of the summer, and draw a lot of pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies. They mostly play nice with the other plants (okay, they have a habit over overgrowing the smaller perennials, so I have to ruthlessly weed out the plants that are out of bounds), and I like the lacy green plant as much as the flowers.

The first yarrow I ever noticed was a bunch that was planted along the curb in a busy intersection. This plant received no care, didn’t seem to get additional water beyond precipitation and splashes from the street, and looks fantastic. It was covered in huge yellow blooms that kept their color for most of the summer. Every single summer the plant put out more blooms and got bigger over the years: a perennial for sure. Hmm… what a great plant, I thought. Of course, I put some yellow yarrow in the garden.

Then I bought a spinning wheel. Then I found someone who had a flock of sheep and beautiful fleeces for sale. In just a few months I had spun my way through that first white fleece (a sheep named Bob) and had all of that yarn to dye. I took a natural dye workshop from Maggie Casey at Shuttles, Spindles & Skeins in Boulder, Colorado. What a fun (but smelly) day that was!

We made several dyes and learned how to get them to “bite” onto the yarn with mordants (think of mordants as linking chemicals that attach the dye molecule to the protein of the wool) like alum and iron. I loved the indigo dye vat that I made that day and got lots of blue yarns from it. There was a nice golden yellow from onion skins, a raspberry from brazilwood, and a sage green dye extracted from yarrow using iron nails for the mordant.

Close-up of the sock I knitted from the indigo and brazilwood dyed yarn. This sock, now more than 20 years old, was made using three shades of indigo, the raspberry (now kind of clay colored) contrast stripe is the brazilwood, and the dark grey is the natural color of another sheep named Silverheels, because of course he was. Everything is now faded, but you get the idea.

That sock, a genuine homespun, naturally dyed, hand knit item, has been my go-to boot sock for a couple of decades and was for a time my “interview” sock when asked to show a sample of my work to clients that I knitted for. Faded, but still going, it has been living in my car as part of the winter travel kit.

Back to the dyeing! Oh, boy. That yarrow was a smelly mess as we boiled the stems, leaves and flowers on the stove out on the porch. Seriously, this stuff could be medicine. Oh, wait. It can be medicine! Yarrow was known by early healers as a plant that could be used to stop bleeding and has lots of different names, some of which refer to this ability to staunch blood like nosebleed plant or woundwort. Luckily none of us were bleeding that day; we strained the vegetable matter (and nails) out of the boiled yarrow mess pot, added back in our skeins of yarn, and simmered gently until we had a nice sage green color.

That yarn became socks that I gave away to a coworker. The love for yarrow remained and I added white yarrow to my garden years later, and a couple of summers after that a wonderful purplish-pink yarrow joined the party.

This plant hangs out with my lavender.

The pink is my favorite. The plant is spreading out and taking over the whole garden that I planted it in (hang in there, lavender, you can stand up for yourself!). It blooms like crazy all summer and I keep thinking that I should cut the flowers to preserve them. I never have used the plants for dye, but I still have a lot of white yarn that would love to get some color going.

Lavender holding its own with the yarrow.

Beautiful yarrow, evoking forever the memory of that great Saturday dyeing yarn from a sheep named Bob in Maggie’s driveway. What could be better?

Author: Midnight Knitter

I weave, knit and read in Aurora, Colorado where my garden lives. I have 2 sons, a knitting daughter-in-law, a grandson and two exceptionally spoiled kittens. In 2014 I was diagnosed with a serious rare autoimmune disease called systemic sclerosis along with Sjogren's Disease and fibromyalgia.

19 thoughts on “The BioGeek Memoirs: Yarrow”

  1. What an awesome post! I love yarrow and years ago when I lived in a higher elevation here in Arizona I had white and pink in my garden. Your sock is so beautiful and wow, a class with Maggie Casey, that’s so amazing!

    1. There is a lot of blue flax growing along the side of the road into Boulder, Colorado and I often think about digging some up in the thought that it might reseed itself. My white yarrow is the one that is now growing all over the back garden. I have to make sure it get enough fertilizer or it doesn’t bloom. I bet yours loves its new home!

  2. I love yarrow and years ago had both white and pink in my garden…. I miss it. What a lovely sock and how awesome you took a class with Maggie Casey!

    1. It is a perfect, easy plant that is easy to grow. I mean, think of the one that was flourishing along the side of a busy road with no observable support, rocking its blooms year after year. That’s why I started with it and boy, has it delivered in my garden.

  3. Your plants are so pretty! I don’t know how you do it. In the spring, I want to plant butterfly bushes because I love butterflies and want more to come around. I also do love your animal pictures. Your cats are too cute!

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