(Milk Vetch)The genus Astragalus is the largest genus in the pea family (Fabaceae) with over 2000 species distributed around the world in sunny areas. More than 550 species of Astragalus are North American native plants found primarily in the western US. Most people are familiar with Astragalus as a Chinese traditional herb that is used to prolong life and combat diabetes or as the source of a Middle Eastern paste called tragacanth or shiraz gum. However, we grow Astragalus species that are noted for their ornamental properties, not their medicinal or industrial properties.
Astragalus plants are generally vines or small herbs with vetch-like foliage topped with clusters of colorful pea flowers. Astragalus prefers full sun and will spread to make a nice groundcover. Since it is in the family Fabaceae, Astragalus acts as green manure and enriches the soil with nitrogen. Its spreading nature makes Astragalus a wonderful cottage garden or meadow plant. Try combining Astragalus in your garden with ornamental grasses such as Andropgon or Elymus or with other meadow plants like Spigelia, Monarda, Gaillardia, Echinacea, Eustoma, or Coreopsis. Only one species of Astragalus is used in Chinese medicine, A. propinquus. The round, juicy seed pods of one US native species (A. crassicarpus) are a traditional Native American food called ground plums or buffalo beans. Still other species (A. lentiginosus, A. bisulcatus and others) are poisonous, causing blind staggers and loco disease that kill thousands of livestock animals every year. So be careful which ground plum you eat. Some extend life and others shorten it. The name Astragalus is derived from the Greek astragalos which means neck vertebrae or ankle bone (depending on usage) and is so named because the flowers and seeds reminded some long dead taxonomist of these rounded bones. When you are ready to buy Astragalus for your garden, check out our online list of Astragalus for sale.