- Author: Harold McDonald
Yarrow is a plant that people have used for thousands of years. Indeed, Linnaeus, the father of plant taxonomy, gave yarrow the genus name Achillea after the great Greek warrior Achilles, who supposedly carried common yarrow with his army to treat battle wounds. It goes by many other common names, most of them related to its use on the battlefield: herbe militaris, knight's milfoil, staunchweed and soldier's woundwort (the latter from the US Civil War). Native American nations across the continent used yarrow for everything from toothaches to menstrual cramps. Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is found in every California habitat except the Mojave and Colorado Deserts; the Miwok used the plant as an analgesic and head cold remedy. Indeed, it would be hard to find a plant with such a long and varied history of uses, but my objective here is to focus on this often-overlooked plant simply as an ornamental!
Between the soil, the wind and the varmints, I have challenging growing conditions in my yard, to say the least. Yarrow is virtually pest-free—even deer and rabbits avoid it. It's pretty drought tolerant once established, and it prefers sandy, poor to average soil. Indeed, very fertile soil will cause too much top growth, and the leggy stems will flop over. In other words, it's just the plant for me!
Now, your past experience with yarrow may be different. Many yarrows spread by rhizomes, and in well-watered locations they can get out of control. But out here where even weeds don't prosper, I prefer my plants to be a bit aggressive! And if you choose the right yarrow and put it in the right location, you'll earn a lot of garden interest for almost no investment.
There are about 80 species of yarrow worldwide, but nearly all those found in nurseries come from just two of those species: Achillea millefolium and A filipendulina. Nearly everyone is familiar with the tall (2-3') yellow yarrows. ‘Coronation Gold,' ‘Moonshine,' and ‘Cloth of Gold' (my favorite) are three that are widely available. These are Achillea filipendulina hybrids and cultivars, and while they are hard to beat for a spectacular early season display, by July they are looking pretty bedraggled. I harvest many of the stems when they are first opening for dried flowers, and when the remainder start to fade, I cut them back to encourage a second bloom in fall. Best to place these vigorous growers near the back of the bed, because they're a bit drab after this shearing!
But beyond these most commonly seen cultivars, there is a whole world of tough, attractive yarrow to fit most anywhere in the garden. Woolly yarrow (Achillea tomentosa) is grown chiefly for its gray, fuzzy fern-like leaves. This spreader has yellow flowers and stays 6-12” high, the perfect plant for edging stones at the front of your beds. You can sometimes find this among the ground covers at local nurseries. ‘King Edward' (Achillea x lewisii) is similar, with beautiful butter-yellow flowers, but so far I've only been able to find it available one place online. Achillea ptarmica is unique, the flowers borne more singularly than the umbel typical of the genus. Some people use this more sophisticated yarrow as a substitute for baby's breath. Like many of the others listed here, you're not likely to come across plants in a nursery, but all yarrows are easy to grow from seed, so if you can wait a few years, you'll have plenty of flowers down the line.
Easier to find in nurseries, sometimes even in 6-packs, are intermediate-sized yarrows in all shades of pink, rose and cream colors. Most of these are cultivars of Achillea millefolium (common yarrow). I found ‘Paprika,' ‘Red Beauty,' ‘Island Pink' and ‘Summer Pastels' all in local nurseries this past summer, as well as a new dwarf cultivar of ‘Moonshine' and the russet tones of ‘Terra Cotta.' High Country Gardens is one of many places to find plants online, and if you're willing to grow your own, there are even more options available from places like Swallowtail Seeds.
I'm going big on yarrows this year! I planted seeds of ‘Colorado Mix,' ‘Summer Berries,' red, rose and white, and they all sprouted in less than a week, with germination rates of nearly 100%. Between the newcomers and all those I've already planted, I should have carefree blooms throughout the summer. And—since yarrows make great dried flowers—they will brighten the cool season.
Note: Links to sources in this article are provided as a convenience to the reader. No endorsement by UC Regents is implied or intended.
- Author: Alison Collin
The herbal qualities of rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum) have been treasured in China for thousands of years, its export to the outside world often being forbidden. The type which we now eat originated in Russia, and reached America by way of Europe in the 1770s. It is grown primarily for its succulent stems which can be made into various desserts and preserves. (What we usually call stems on rhubarb are actually petioles – a “leaf's stem”). The leaves, however, contain high quantities of oxalic acid and are very toxic. Stems can be harvested as early as April in the Owens Valley, long before any fruits are ready, and in many countries plants are “forced” to obtain an even earlier crop. Large terracotta forcing pots were part of my childhood scene in England, although one seldom sees them now. I have not found anyone who has tried forcing in our area.
As with so many plants from temperate climates, rhubarb is on the edge of its range in the high desert but with afternoon shade and sufficient water it can do well. Responses from Master Gardeners in the area show that either they cannot get it going or else they cannot get rid of it! Unfortunately the names of the varieties that various people have tried have been lost in the mists of time, but the three Master Gardeners who failed were trying to grow red stemmed varieties which are considered less heat tolerant.
I grow a very robust green, slightly red-tinged variety, which I believe to be 'Victoria', given to me (and many others) by a gardener in Bishop. The mother plant has been producing and spreading for many years, and mine has shown no signs of weakening after three years, although plants on a south-facing wall under dappled shade grow flatter and are much less productive than one planted against an east-facing fence. Another recipient of the same stock planted hers on a shaded west-facing fence about 8 feet away from a stream with no additional irrigation and has an enormous plant. One person has it planted on the north side of her house and finds that it grows well there.
Master Gardener Bobbie Stryeffeler has a prolific red-stemmed variety the leaves of which have red veins. Red varieties commonly found in nurseries include 'MacDonald' and 'Crimson Cherry' which is grown in other areas of California, and is one of the best since the red coloring goes right through the stem and does not cook out. Although there is supposedly no difference in sweetness between the red and green stemmed varieties, the red stemmed ones definitely make more attractive-looking jams and pies.
The large, bold plants can be quite handsome and many gardeners consider them ideal for incorporating into an edible landscape. Allow about one square yard per plant. Rhubarb takes a couple of years to become established, but then needs dividing only every 5 – 10 years, so it is necessary to prepare the soil very well - digging deeply, removing all perennial weeds, and adding a generous amount of rotted manure or compost. Plenty of moisture – preferably by drip irrigation - and protection from the sun during the hottest part of the day are requirements, and although quite hardy they benefit from a covering of mulch during the winter. They have a long, thick, woody rootstock at the top of which are “eyes” or buds which give rise to many petioles, each topped with a large leaf blade. Plant in early spring placing the eyes so that they are covered with about 2'' of soil. A winter chill below 40°F is required to induce rapid growth in the spring and early summer which continues until the temperatures reach above 75°F at which point the plants become dormant until cut down by the first severe frost. Plants should be mulched annually with well-rotted compost or manure, or else fertilized with a 10-10-10 formula.
Do not harvest any stems the first year, and in the second year harvest only lightly. After that full harvesting can begin, but never pull more that 30%-50% of the stems to ensure you leave enough leaves to feed the plant. The younger stems are most flavorful and tender. Pull the stems from the base of the plant with a slight sideways motion – do not cut them as this leaves a stub that may rot. Many experts recommend removing the leaves immediately. The harvested petioles can be used fresh, or frozen, or preserved for future use.
The leaves may be safely composted. Flower spikes appear as a large sheath-covered bud at the base of the plant and should be removed as soon as they become apparent since they deplete the plant's reserves, although in some countries the flowers are said to be dipped in batter and fried. The green-stemmed varieties tend to bolt more than those with red-stems.
A word of warning: The leaves contain very high, toxic levels of oxalates and anthraquinone glycosides. However, the stems also contain lesser amounts and excess oxalic acid is excreted by the kidneys. It can combine with calcium to form calcium oxalate. Excess crystals of this compound lead to the formation of bladder or kidney stones, so people suffering from these conditions, as well as those with kidney disease or gout should avoid eating rhubarb.
Just thinking of rhubarb takes me back to my childhood. Candy was rationed, so a special treat was to be given a little cone of paper containing sugar, and a tender rhubarb stem for dipping. There are whole cook-books devoted entirely to rhubarb recipes so if you are successful in growing this plant it should be easy to find something to do with it!
Although our climate leans strongly toward the harsh end of the spectrum, we can still grow a wide array of fruits in the Eastern Sierra. Figs are one those crops we can grow.
We will never be known as the Fig Capital of the World, but they can be successfully grown in the Owens Valley.
In this video, Alison Collin goes over a few basics on raising figs in our area.
Growing Figs in the Owens Valley
TIP: Remember that figs vary in their hardiness. 'Mission' figs, common though most of California, are not reliably hardy here. 'Brown Turkey', 'Celeste'/'Malta', 'Kadota', and 'Hardy Chicago' are known to survive on the valley floor. Others work too. Figs that require pollination by a fig wasp will not work at all.
The first week of December is California Healthy Soils Week. To help "celebrate" the occasion I was asked to give a lecture on some tips to keep your garden soil healthy. If you're the type that likes to watch videos, then you can watch the recording. (It's about 1 hour including the questions at the end.)
If you're like me and like to get the short, bullet-point version, here it is.
Dustin's Healthy Soil Tips:
- Know your native soil (Try this link!)
- Make permanent paths
- Treat beds like beds: don't stand or walk in them and keep them covered—with mulch
- Add organic materials like compost
- Rotate crops; be sure to include cover crops
- Till gently; here's an article to learn more
Note: Inyo-Mono Master Gardeners who watch the video can receive 1 hour continuing education credit.