Galega officinalis, commonly known as Goat's Rue is an ancient ornamental plant that, throughout history has been extensively cultivated as a forage crop, a bee plant, as a green manure, a medicinal herb and as an ornamental.
In the garden, this informal plant looks best when scrambling amongst low branches of shrubs, which support the handsome foliage and allow the stems of mini-sweet pea shaped flowers to space themselves out and make a good display. In wild gardens, self-sown seedlings produce a delightful natural effect, erupting in spring to produce countless sprays of fragrant lavender-blue flower spikes.
Galega officinalis is a robust perennial that succeeds in most soils, even in poor soils but will repay generous treatment. The plant prefers full sun and a deep moist soil but will also succeed in light shade. It is very tolerant of neglect and can be grown in quite coarse grass, which can be cut annually in the autumn.
The plant has a smooth and hollowed out erect branching stems and pinnate leaves. It can grow to 150cm (60in) in height and a spread of 90cm (36in). The stems are best supported with twiggy pea sticks to raise them up off the ground, if left unsupported in rich soil they may trail over the ground or form untidy hillocks.
This species blooms in summer through to early autumn with erect racemes 15cm (6in) in length of lavender-blue flowers. In good growing conditions the plants self seed, so deadhead in borders. Congested plants can be divided in spring
Sowing: Sow in spring or in autumn
Soak the seeds for 12 hours in warm water and then sow the seed in a cold frame. Spring-sown seed can be slow to germinate, a period of cold stratification may improve the germination time.
Once the seedlings have their first pair of true leaves (they come after the seedlings first pair of leaves) and are large enough to handle, Prick out each seedling into 7.5cm (3in) pots to grow on. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out after all risk of frost has passed into well drained soil. Plant 30cm (12in) apart.
Another option, is to sow seeds outdoors in situ from mid to late spring - this is possible when the supply of seeds is not a problem.
Seedlings that are found in larger clumps may be replanted directly into the permanent positions they will occupy. However, it may be best grow the smaller clumps in pots on a cold frame till they have begun to rooting well in the soil. These can then be plant out of doors in the spring into their permanent sites.
Cottage/Informal Garden, Flower Arranging, Flowers Borders and Beds.
Galega officinalis, as with other members of the Pea family makes a good green manure crop. It has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria, these bacteria form nodules on the roots and fix atmospheric nitrogen. Some of this nitrogen is utilised by the growing plant but some can also be used by other plants growing nearby.
The plant is used cosmetically for external treatments such as hand and foot bathes. Culpepper says: 'A bath made of it is very refreshing to wash the feet of persons tired with overwalking.
Culpepper also says: In the northern countries, they use this herb for making their cheeses instead of Rennet, whence it is called also ‘Cheese Rennet’; the flowers contain an acidity, which may be got by distillation. This plant is seldom used in the shops.'
Known in the old Herbals as Herba ruta caprariae, Galega officinalis was considered medicinally important in the treatment of plague, fevers and infectious diseases but is now considered too toxic for human use.
Galega officinalis has been known since the Middle Ages for relieving the symptoms of diabetes mellitus. Upon analysis, it turned out to contain compounds related to guanidine, a substance that decreases blood sugar by mechanisms including a decrease in insulin resistance, but were too toxic for human use. The active ingredient is galegine or isoamylene guanidine. Georges Tanret identified an alkaloid from this plant, galegine, that was less toxic (than guanidine and this was evaluated in unsuccessful clinical trials in patients with diabetes in the 1920s and 1930s.
Other related compounds were being investigated clinically at this time, including biguanide derivatives. This work led ultimately to the discovery of metformin (Glucophage), currently used for the management of diabetes and the older agent phenformin. The study of galegine and related molecules in the first half of the 20th century is regarded as an important milestone in the development of oral antidiabetic pharmacotherapy.
Medieval Europeans first noticed that the plant increased milk production in livestock when eaten. Goat’s rue, sometimes called Holy Hay was first mentioned by dairy farmer Gillet-Damitte in 1873 in a letter to the French Academy in which he described milk production increases in his cows of between 35 to 50 percent when given this herb. Drs. Cerisoli and Millbank subsequently confirmed empirical evidence that goat’s rue is indeed a powerful galactagogue. Goat’s rue is also reputed to increase breast tissue, though how it might do so is not well understood.
Despite the positive reports on cattle, Goat’s rue is considered somewhat controversial due to documented toxicity to sheep and goats who grazed upon it. The plant has proved too toxic for widespread agricultural use, with the potential to induce a build up of excess fluid in the lungs, pleural cavities, or trachea, low blood pressure, paralysis and death.
Galega officinalis is a wildflower that is indigenous to southern Europe and western Asia, it has naturalised in Europe, western Asia, and western Pakistan. In England, it is widespread in the south east, but scarcer elsewhere in Britain.
It grows in woodland areas and areas of dappled shade. It can grow in any soil conditions including nutritionally poor soil. It prefers moist soil and can be found in damp meadows and stream banks and waste ground.
The genus name Galega derives from the Greek wordgala, meaning milk
and ago meaning ‘to bring on’. The plant was historically used as a galactagogue in small domestic animals.
When Linnaeus invented the binomial system of nomenclature, he gave the specific name 'officinalis' to plants (and sometimes animals) with an established medicinal, culinary, or other use. The word officinalis is derived from the Latin officina meaning a storeroom (of a monastery) for medicines and necessaries. It literally means 'of or belonging in an officina', and that it was officially recognised as a medicinal herb. It conjures up images of a storeroom where apothecaries and herbalists stored their herbs.
Galega officinalis is commonly known as Goat's Rue, Holy Hay, French Lilac, Cheese Rennet, Italian Fitch and Professor-Weed.
The most commonly used name ‘Goat's Rue’ is a reference to its use to encourage the milk flow of small animals, such as goats. Not to be semantically confused with Goat's-beard (a plant of similar name, but which belongs to the Daisy family).
The word 'fitch' is an ancient word, used in the Bible and denotes small species of the pea family. Modern English would use the word ‘vetches’.
The name ‘Cheese Rennet’ is given to this plant in many parts of England. The juice pressed from the green parts of the plant is used to clot milk during the process of cheese manufacture.
It should be noted that the common names of Goat's Rue and French Lilac are also used for other entirely different species. The name Goat's Rue is also given to Tephrosia virginiana, a wild plant that is native to Eastern and Central North America. While the name French Lilac also refers to the shrub Syringa vulgaris, a species of flowering plant in the olive family.
Galega bicolor is a synonym. The flowers range from pure white to a lilac hue.
- Additional Information
Average Seed Count 30 Seeds Seed Form Natural Common Name Goat's Rue Family Fabaceae Genus Galega Species officinalis Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers Spikes of blue flowers Natural Flower Time Summer through Autumn Height Up to 150cm (60in) Spread Up to 90cm (to 36inin). Position Full sun preferred