Native plant: goat’s rue

by Caroline Brown

Goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginica) is a rare native plant (in Rhode Island) that can be found at Wolf Hill Forest Preserve here in Smithfield. A member of the bean family (Fabaceae), goat’s rue is found in most U.S. states that are east of the Rockies, with the exception of Maine and Vermont. In the spring and summer, its contrasting pink and white pea-like flowers are quite showy. Goat’s rue has pinnate, oblong leaves and fuzzy, bean-like seed pods.

Goat’s rue earned its name because goats, which eat anything, are poisoned when they eat its roots. Some native peoples used the roots of goat’s rue as poison. It has a long taproot, which makes it very drought resistant, but that also means that it’s difficult to transplant. It’s easier to grow it from seed.

It’s a little odd to find goat’s rue at Wolf Hill, because it’s most commonly found in early successional habitats such as open woodlands, meadows, roadsides, or grasslands. Wolf Hill Forest Preserve for the most part is densely wooded–the goat’s rue makes its home near some of the more open areas that have been disturbed by power lines.
Another view of goat’s rue

Goat’s rue seed pods and leaves
Besides T. virginica, there’s another goat’s rue, also a member of the bean family, whose botanical name is Galega officinalis. Don’t confuse the two, as G. officinalis is actually an invasive plant that has been declared a noxious weed in some states.

On the Internet, there are a lot of goat’s rue remedies for different ailments, primarily increasing the flow of breast milk. But I just gave it a cursory glance and couldn’t tell which goat’s rue the herbal remedies are made from.

The “other” goat’s rue, G. officinalis

This was supposed to be a post about two rare natives, but I wanted to show a lot of photos of goat’s rue. So, my next post will be about another rare native, pale corydalis.

All photos of T. virginica courtesy of Kansas State University. Photo of G. officinalis courtesy of Wikipedia.


8 Comments to “Native plant: goat’s rue”

  1. What a great looking plant!! I’ve never seen it before but will be on the lookout next summer! Are seeds available?

  2. Hi Ginger, I did see some internet sources for seeds when I was doing research. Try Oak Prairie Farm:
    If you end up with a nice “crop” of goat’s rue next spring, send us a pic!

  3. How cool is THAT? Now I want to figure out if perhaps it’s native beyond RI. I can’t wait to see the others native plants you have in store!

  4. It’s always fun to discover things like that…almost like a walk back in time…the first settlers looking around to see what plants they’ve got to work with for medicines.

  5. Hi JLB, yes I believe it’s native in most states east of the Rockies, including Penn. Besides RI, I don’t know which states that it’s rare in, however…

    Hi Michelle, I’m always fascinated thinking about how early peoples “discovered” they could eat something or use it as poison or clothes or whatever. I read that native people’s used goat’s rue roots to “stun” fish so they could catch them. How on earth did they ever figure that out?!?!?!?

  6. this is so cool!!! In the flower dept (LOL) reminds me of a snapdragon.

    BFN, G 😉

  7. Hi Caroline, I just got the strangest visual…a couple of Pilgrims with handfuls of different plants in their hands standing in a stream with fish swimming around their ankles. One fellow drops a plant into the water and says to the other, “Let’s see if this one stops ’em in their tracks!”

    Seriously, though….I wonder, too, and figure it has to be a matter of long-term observation – over a couple of generations perhaps – with the person in one occupation (logically, the herbal healer and her apprentices down the years) , or one local family keeping track of the use of each plant to see how well or poorly it works.

  8. Hi Michelle — I think the European settlers were pretty behind the curve on that sort of stuff…they couldn’t even figure out what to eat when they got here. 🙂 As you said, the Native peoples would have developed the knowledge and experience over the generations.

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