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?

Snapshots from the Garden

The monsoon arrived right on schedule a couple of weeks ago here in Colorado. The days are now cooler, we get rainy days every week, and almost every afternoon there are thunderstorms. Some of the storms have really been memorable: serious rain, with thunder and hail. The cats have been staying inside, and the closet is getting quite a workout as they shelter in place waiting for the thunderstorms to pass.

Cat in the Closet
Is it over yet?

Yet, every thunderstorm has its silver lining. After struggling through the heat of July, the yard has burst back into bloom, and with the flowers and water I’m seeing more wildlife. Flocks of birds congregate in the back, and squirrels have been chasing each other across the roof, through the trees, and along the fence, and insects are everywhere. This morning was warm and sunny, so the cats and I returned to the yard. Here are some of the highlights.

Butterfly
The butterfly bush is now covered with blooms, and the butterflies have arrived. I think that this is a Painted Lady

Yarrow
The yarrow that I planted early this summer is now putting out new blooms.

Squirrel

Squash
My acorn squash survived the hail storms okay, but the plant lost most of its leaves. I’m hoping that the squash will make it to maturity.

Cat drinking from water
The outdoor water dish for the cats was full of fresh water. Yellow Boy moved right in.

I spent the morning drinking my latte, pulling weeds, and tending to plants that were damaged in the storms. By noon the clouds were piling up again over the mountains so the cats and I packed up and went back into the house. As I write this post the thunder is sounding, the rain is on the way, and MacKenzie is back in the closet.

Knitting time!