Herb to Know: Goat's Rue

| April/May 2001

Genus: Galega officinalis
Pronunciation: (Guh-LEE-guh uh-fiss-ih-NAL-iss)
Family: Leguminosae

• 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.

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