Herb to Know: Herb Robert

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Geranium robertianum
• (jer-AY-nee-um ro-burr-tee-ANN-um)
• Family Geraniaceae
• Annual or biennial herb

This pert little European woodland geranium has a long history as a medicinal herb, is attractive and easy to grow, yet it is not seen in many U.S. herb gardens. Perhaps it just needs a little PR.

The genus Geranium contains some 300 species of annual and perennial herbs and subshrubs native to temperate areas around the world. (The scented geraniums beloved of herb gardeners and the popular windowbox geraniums actually belong to the genus Pelargonium.) The flowers have five sepals, five petals, ten stamens in two circles of five, and a five-parted pistil. The ovary when mature separates from the base into five parts, each containing a seed and each attached to a part of the long style, which curls upward. The style’s resemblance to a beak has given the genus the common name cranesbill (geranos is Greek for “crane”).

Herb Robert is an annual or bien­nial herb that is native to Europe, southern temperate Asia, and North Africa, and has naturalized in North and South America. In North America, it grows wild in rocky woods and along roadsides from Newfoundland to Manitoba and south to Maryland, West Virginia, Indiana, and Nebraska. It is often found in weedy areas on rock ledges.

Herb Robert forms a succulent rosette of basal leaves on reddish hairy, sticky, highly branched, sprawling or upright stems. The foliage also is hairy and may have a reddish tint or edging. Both the stems and leaves turn bright red in the fall. Opposite leaves up to 41/2 inches wide are palmately divided into three to five pinnately divided leaflets, giving them a dainty, fernlike look. The terminal leaflet is usually stalked. The leaves when bruised emit an odor generally described as disagreeable (or ­peculiar, bitter-aromatic, fetid, foxy, or evil)–except by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, who called it “the most sweetly scented of all wild geraniums”. Half-inch-wide pinkish purple flowers with reddish sepals and orange or red ­anthers bloom in pairs in the upper leaf axils beginning in May and sometimes continuing into the winter in mild ­climates. They are sometimes ­pollinated by long-tongued insects but are usually self-pollinated. At maturity, the fruit’s long, pointed beak suddenly splits from the base, ejecting the dark brown, finely wrinkled or pitted seeds outward, sometimes for ­several feet.

White-flowered cultivars include ‘Album’, with a trailing habit, red-brown leaves and stems, and large flowers; and ‘Celtic White’ a dwarf form with small flowers. ‘Album’, at least, seems to come true from seed.

The Elusive Robert

Who was the Robert for whom this little plant was named? Was it St. Robert of Molesme, a French monk who died in 1110? Or Robert, duke of Normandy, who died in 1134? Or perhaps the Bavarian ecclesiastic St. Rupert of Salzburg, who died about 718? Or none of the above? Harold William Rickett, author of Wild Flowers of the United States, held that the herb “was dedicated to Robin Goodfellow, Knecht Ruprecht, the Brownie of English folk-lore, and perhaps to Robin Hood; also to the little Robin redbreast, which, like the plant, was constantly about the house.”

Other English local names include variants of Robert such as Robin redshank and red Robin (for the stem color), as well as stinking-Bob (for the odor).

Alas, some killjoy maintains that robertianum, herb Robert’s specific name, is not a reference to a real or figurative Robert. Instead, it is only a corruption of ruberta, from the Latin ruber, “red”, alluding to herb Robert’s reddish fruit and flowers.

Medicinal Uses For Herb Robert

Like so many other herbs, herb Robert has been used to treat a vast range of ailments. Believers in the Doctrine of Signatures thought that its red stems showed that the herb was good for regenerating the blood and stopping internal bleeding. The alternate name bloodwort alludes to this use. Herb Robert tea is an ingredient of a folk cancer remedy and has also been used to treat malaria, tuberculosis, diabetes, stomach and intestinal disorders including diarrhea, jaundice, and kidney infections.

The tea was gargled or swished around in the mouth to relieve sore throats, mouth sores, or toothache. In Quebec, the plant is called l’herbe à l’esquinancie (quinsy herb) in reference to its use to treat abscesses in the connective tissue around the tonsils. The tea or a poultice has been used externally to relieve eye inflammation, skin irritations, bruises, herpes, swollen breasts (but also to stimulate lactation), fistulas, tumors, ulcers, and felons (inflammations of the tip of the finger or toe)–the alternate name felonwort celebrates this use. The herb was even thought to mend broken bones.

Herb Robert contains tannins, which probably are responsible for its ability to check bleeding and diarrhea and alleviate sore throats and skin irritations. Research showing that herb Robert lowers blood-sugar levels supports its use in treating diabetes. It is little used today, however. Further studies are necessary to confirm its use in treating other illnesses.

Growing Herb Robert

Although its freshly crushed leaves are said to ward off mosquitoes, herb Robert today is planted mainly for its ornamental value. It’s in bloom most of the summer, and its fall color can brighten up a woodland garden when many other plants have finished their show for the season.

Choose a site in sun or shade with well-drained soil. Sow seeds in early autumn or spring. Keep the young plants weeded. In some places, rust (a fungus disease) can be a problem. Remove diseased plants or dust plants with sulfur if they’re only mildly affected. For me­dicinal use, entire plants are harvested as they come into bloom and dried or used fresh.

Herb Robert self-seeds abundantly; volunteers are especially picturesque growing out of crannies among stepping stones. If it likes your garden, you’ll have this herb forever.


• Arrowhead Alpines, PO Box 857, Fowler­ville, MI 48836. Seed list $2. Seeds of G. robertianum.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. Catalog free. Seeds of G. robertianum.

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