Genus: Galega officinalis
Pronunciation: (Guh-LEE-guh uh-fiss-ih-NAL-iss)
• Eurasian herbaceous perennial to 5 feet tall
• Hardy in Zones 3 to 9
• Once widely used as a medicinal
• Attractive and easy to grow but invasive and toxic to livestock
This pretty herb with an unattractive name has fallen into disfavor in recent years by growing where it’s not wanted and poisoning the animals that feed on it.
The genus Galega comprises about six species of perennials native to tropical eastern Africa and from southern Europe to western Asia. Goat’s rue (G. officinalis) ranges from central and southern Europe to Asia Minor in moist meadows and other damp habitats.
It is a bushy plant that grows to 3 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide from a deep taproot. Smooth, erect, branched hollow stems bear bright green leaves, each pinnately divided into four to eight pairs of leaflets, 3/4 to 2 inches long. The mucilaginous leaf juice tastes bitter and astringent; the bad smell emitted by bruised leaves probably gives the herb its most widely known common name. The English once called this herb Italian fitch, “fitch” being a variant of “vetch,” a twining pea-family cousin. It is still known to some people as French lilac because of the similarity in shape and color of its spikes of lavender or white pea flowers to the panicles of common lilac (Syringa vulgaris). Goat’s rue blooms over a long period in summer. The flowers are followed by narrow, 2-inch-long pods, each filled with one to nine smooth, dull brown, kidney-shaped seeds.
As is true with many other legumes, soil bacteria that form nodules on the roots of goat’s rue fix atmospheric nitrogen, which can then be utilized by the plants. If the plants are turned under the soil, the nitrogen is released as they decompose, increasing the soil’s fertility.
The generic name, Galega, from the Greek word gala (“milk”) refers to the formerly widespread use of goat’s rue as fodder to increase the milk yield of cows, reportedly by as much as 50 percent. Reasoning that it might do the same for humans, herbalists also have prescribed goat’s rue to lactating women.
You can be sure that any herb whose specific epithet is officinalis (“of the [apothecary’s] storeroom”) has a long history as a medicinal plant. Goat’s rue is no exception. Given its botanical name by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century, goat’s rue had already been in use for centuries as a remedy for everything from indigestion to snakebite.
The Germans called goat’s rue Pestilenzkraut (“plague herb”) because of its reputation for curing infectious diseases. The sixteenth-century English herbalist John Gerard noted that goat’s rue boiled in vinegar and mixed with a little molasses was especially effective if taken within twelve hours of the onset of plague symptoms, and the sweating produced by drinking goat’s rue tea was thought beneficial for relieving fevers. It was also considered a mild diuretic, digestive, and treatment for pancreatitis and chronic constipation caused by lack of digestive enzymes.
A child with worms might find relief either by drinking the juice or having a handful of goat’s rue tops that had been fried in linseed oil bound upon his navel. And a topical application of the juice or crushed herb soothed “the bitings and stingings of venomous beasts,” including bees and wasps, and a bath of goat’s rue was said to refresh tired feet.
Although the Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database (www.ars-grin.gov/duke) of James A. Duke, Ph.D. indicates that neither the plant nor any part of it has been proven effective for treating any of the ailments mentioned here, its folk uses have stimulated some recent research. A 1999 Scottish study investigating its use in combination with other herbs to treat the high blood sugar of patients with diabetes mellitus found that rats fed goat’s rue lost weight, apparently through the loss of body fat. Another 1999 study evaluating goat’s rue and three other herbs used in Chilean popular medicine did not, however, mention goat’s rue as lowering blood sugar in either normal rats or rats with chemically induced diabetes. Meanwhile, Bulgarian studies published in 1999 and 2000 found that a desalted extract of goat’s rue can inhibit or even reverse the clumping of blood platelets. Further reports on goat’s rue’s potential uses in medicine may be expected.
The young leaves of goat’s rue have been eaten like spinach (Gerard claimed that eating it was “most excellent . . . against all poison and pestilence, or any venomous infirmitie whatsoever”), and the tops have been used as a vegetable rennet, or coagulant, in cheese making. The seventeenth-century English herbalist John Parkinson said the herb was good for fattening hens while Gerard maintained that it made them lay more eggs.
Goat’s rue is handsome in informal flower borders and wild gardens, and its flowers keep well when cut.
This herb has two significant drawbacks, however. It chokes out native plant species, driving away the wildlife that feed on or shelter in them. It also poisons grazing livestock; affected animals foam at the nostrils, accumulate fluid in the lungs and around the heart, and usually die. Goat’s rue is a weed in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Turkey, and eastern Asia, as well as the United States. By far the worst U.S. infestation has been in Utah. By 1980, 39,000 acres in Cache County had been overrun by goat’s rue, introduced in 1891 as a potential forage or green manure crop. Sheep feeding on it were dying. (Interestingly, not every sheep that ate goat’s rue became ill; a 1988 study concluded that individual sheep have differing susceptibility to the poison, which has been identified as the alkaloid galegine.) By 1996, 90 percent of the population of goat’s rue plants had been eradicated through a combination of crop rotation, mowing, plowing, herbicides, and manual removal of seedpods. Some plants still remain, however.
That crisis may have subsided, but to avert another one, goat’s rue is on the Federal Noxious Weed List, which means that growing it anywhere in the United States is prohibited. Not listed, however, is G. orientalis, a similar species native to the Caucasus with larger leaves and lavender flowers that is hardy in Zones 5 to 8. If you decide to grow this species, cut all blooms to avoid letting any seedpods mature; one invasion of goat’s rue is one too many.
Plant goat’s rue in moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. It can tolerate poor soil and competition from other plants. Pea and bean weevils may enjoy the foliage but are not a major problem. Sow seeds in spring, presoaking them for twelve hours to aid germination. Divide established plants in spring or fall.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0; (905) 640-6677; www.richters.com. Catalog free. Seeds of G. officinalis (cannot be shipped to United States).
• Thompson and Morgan, PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527-0308; (800) 274-7333; www.thompson-morgan.com. Catalog free. Seeds of G. orientalis.
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