Goatsbeard. Learn how to distinguish between two plants with the same name but very different characteristics.
Goatsbeard – The Perennial
The desirable perennial plant, Aruncus, also known by its common name, goatsbeard, wears two hats. One is a tall Aruncus dioicus with lovely creamy white plumes on strong-stemmed five-foot tall foliage. The tall aruncus adds a shrub-like architectural structure to a partial shade garden.
So many gardeners are not aware of the excellence of Aruncus or Goatsbeard for it’s a hardy zone-two perennial that appreciates the rigors of cold climates. Goatsbeard is so trouble-free that it performs as a shrub that goes dormant or underground in winter so it never needs trimming. This fine plant is non-invasive and non-aggressive and stays right where it was planted without gardener intervention. All of this is commendable, but it is the blooms of aruncus that are especially magnificent. Its tiny, white, five-petaled blooms mass on fifteen–inch long sprays that bring light into a shady spot.
Aruncus’s other hat is called dwarf goat’s beard because it is so small. It has delicate ferny foliage and creamy-white feathery flowers on red stems. Aruncus aethusifolius is a miniature version with the same traits as diocus but with a petite size.
Aruncus, with its long history of external herbal healing, makes a great soak for poor aching feet but is not to be used as an edible green vegetable. In early spring, foragers seeking organic greens move into meadows, around ponds and dirt side disturbances to gather newly breaking tender edible wild plants. During this early season of the year, Aruncus could be mistaken for wild asparagus due to their young fern-like foliage. As a young shoot, aruncus is somewhat edible but as it matures should not be used for culinary purposes for it develops toxins.
Plants are difficult to identify in early spring and a blooming flower is often the only sure identification. Part of the problem with knowing plants is the confusion over plants with the same name. This is why Latin names are so important. Aruncus’s common name, Goatsbeard, is derived from its Greek name, Tragopogon, (tragos = goat and pogon = beard). What a pity such an attractive perennial has such an unattractive name!
Goatsbeard – The Weed
But hold on! What about that bright yellow weed your Grandmother used to call goatsbeard? Is it the same flower? Hardly! The yellow-flowered goat’s beard grows wild and has naturalized from Europe and is now found over the entire Northern U.S. and Canada. In most parts of North America, it’s actually considered a noxious weed. There’s another reason you’ll want to know the difference between these two plants that share the same name. The weed is edible. The garden perennial definitely is not! Aruncus dioicus or aruncus aethusifolius, shown above, are both poison. Even the seeds of aruncus are poison.
On the other hand, the wild, yellow-blooming weed version of goatsbeard, also known as salsify, is a popular edible plant, for the entire plant is edible. The roots are long tap roots and resemble parsnips. When cooked, salsify can be substituted for artichoke hearts for the texture and flavor are similar. To prepare goatsbeard or salsify, first clean the root, peel, cut it into short pieces and simmer until they are tender. Grated roots and all parts of this nutritious plant are delicious and a little unusual when added to salads.
Before making the mistake of eating aruncus or goatsbeard, simply enjoy the unique beauty of this little-known perennial. Do research before seeking vitamins from unknown wild vegetables.