If you need a showy background plant for your native landscape, goatsbeard is the perfect low-maintenance native perennial. Its arching feathery plumes of white or cream flowers appear through spring and summer, and the mounded foliage turns golden in the fall.
This large, showy plant thrives in shady, moist areas where other plants may not. This is the perfect species for a rain garden or woodland garden, where you need a deer-resistant, moisture-loving, attractive shrub that returns year after year with little care.
Let’s dig into everything you need to know about growing this unique, whimsical-flowered shrub.
Goatsbeard ‘Aruncus dioicus’ Plant Overview
History and Cultivation
Also known as bride’s feathers or buck’s beard, goatsbeard is a flowering herbaceous perennial in the Rosaceae family. It looks similar to astilbe but is not at all related. The plant is primarily grown as a feathery ornamental in woodland gardens, native meadow plantings, and along building edges.
Deer and rabbits leave it alone. It doesn’t require pruning or maintenance! The flowers attract beneficial native insects like bees, syrphid flies, and beetles. However, the little brown seeds are toxic to pets and humans.
What is Goatsbeard?
Goatsbeard spreads via rhizomes, creating bushy clumps of foliage that widen with maturity.
Goatsbeard is an herbaceous perennial plant native to Eastern and Central North America, often found growing in moist deciduous woodlands, along streambanks, and on bluffs. It has frothy cream–colored flowers that appear in large feathery plumes resembling a billy goat’s beard. Hardy in zones 3 through 8, the plant can handle very cold temperatures during dormancy but does not do well in hot, humid conditions.
This moisture-loving shade plant thrives along streams, forest edges, meadows, and rain gardens. It grows up to 6 feet tall and spreads 2 to 4 feet wide. The dark green foliage is pinnately compound and grows in 3 to 4-foot wide mounds. In late spring and summer, the erect flower clusters rise in showy spikes that look striking when planted en masse.
Goatsbeard spreads by rhizome and forms bushy clumps that spread wide with maturity. However, it is slow-growing and often planted with moisture-loving annuals to fill in any bare spaces between plants while they become established.
Where Does the Name Come From?
Derived from the Greek word “aryngos,” the genus name Aruncus means goat’s beard.
The genus name Aruncus comes from the Greek “aryngos,” meaning goat’s beard. The species epithet dioicus refers to the Latin term for having separate female and male plants. Some sources assert that male goatsbeard plants have showier flowers, but the plant sex is not differentiated at the time of purchase.
In the fall, female plants produce tiny seed capsules that are poisonous to animals and humans. However, the drooping plumes of seed pods can add intriguing ornamental value to an autumn garden. A true herbaceous perennial, this plant loses its leaves and dies back to the ground in winter but regrows with full force in spring!
Where Does Goatsbeard Originate?
The showy plant flourishes in gardens when provided with sufficient water, rich soil, and partial shade.
Aruncus dioicus is native to the Central, Eastern, and Western United States, including the entire West Coast, the Midwest, and most of the Eastern seaboard. It also grows wild in Western Europe and Asia. It grows abundantly on forest edges, rocky ledges, streambanks, wet ravines, and avalanche chutes in southern Alaska.
A resilient perennial, it sometimes appears along roadsides and railroad tracks. When goatsbeard has enough water, rich soil, and partial shade, the showy plant will thrive and flower in gardens. In its northern range, the plant doesn’t mind full sun.
When propagating goatsbeard, you have two options: strength or patience. The best way to propagate goatsbeard is by division, but it requires a lot of physical strength because the rhizomes are so tough.
You can also grow goatsbeard from seed, but it requires cold stratification and much more patience. If you want the quickest route possible, opt for a nursery-grown start to transplant in your garden.
Lifting and dividing goatsbeard can be challenging due to its robust rhizomatous nature.
Dividing goatsbeard is not always easy. This rhizomatous plant forms dense underground clumps that readily root and replicate. However, beware that the rhizomes are very hardy and require intensive labor to lift and split them. Grab your best shovel and some water before you get started.
In spring or fall, lift goatsbeard clumps by digging a shovel around the plant’s perimeter. Use the shovel or a pitchfork to lift the heavy rootstock from the ground.
Use a very sharp knife to cut the clump into pieces of rhizome. Each division should have at least one “eye” (bud) and several roots. The roots are woody and rugged, so be careful when cutting them apart.
Replant divisions 2 to 4 feet apart in a similar area. Be patient as new plants become established. Divisions may not flower for several seasons.
Start from Seed
You can start goatsbeard from seed, but patience is required. This slow-growing perennial can take quite some time to get established. Source seeds from a reputable native plant resource or harvest the ripe, dried brown seed pods from a female plant.
Germination is enhanced by pre-chilling seeds in the refrigerator for 3-4 weeks before planting. This process is called cold stratification. It signals the seeds to emerge from dormancy by mimicking their natural exposure to the cold winter weather of their wild habitat.
Sow the goatsbeard seed on the soil surface and gently press it into the soil.
If you want to start indoors, prepare 2-inch pots or cell packs with a standard seed starting mix. Sow the goatsbeard seed on the soil surface and gently press into the soil.
Light is needed for germination, so don’t cover them. Carefully water and move to a cool, bright location at about 55-60°F. Germination takes 2 to 5 weeks. Thin to 1 plant per pot. When plants reach several inches tall, harden off in a protected area to prepare for transplanting.
The plant may take several years to establish when grown directly from seeds.
Goatsbeard naturally self-seeds in the wild, but seeds are more finicky in cultivation. After the chance of frost has passed, prepare a seedbed outdoors. Shallowly sow one seed every 2-3 feet in rows 3 feet apart and very thinly cover or press into the soil. Wait 2 to 3 weeks until germination, then thin the plants to one every 3-4 feet. Consistent moisture is essential.
Be very patient, as the plant can take several years to establish from direct seeding.
Aruncus dioicus handles transplanting well as long as the soil is prepared correctly. The best time to plant goatsbeard is in spring so that it can get established through the entire season. In milder climates, plant in early fall, about six weeks before your first frost date. The perennial needs time to anchor its roots before the ground freezes.
How to Transplant
The ideal time for transplantation is in spring, once the risk of frost has subsided.
Whether you purchased goatsbeard at a nursery or grow your own plants from division or seed, transplanting is straightforward. The best time to transplant is in the spring after the chance of frost has passed. Be sure that the rhizome division has several buds (“eyes”) or, if planting a seedling, there should be several sets of true leaves.
Prepare a hole about 1.5 times the depth and width of the root ball. Loosen and amend with compost as needed. If moving from a pot, loosen the roots by massaging the container. Hold the plant at the base of the foliage and turn it on its size to remove it. Place the plant in the hole so the soil level remains the same. Gently backfill and water in. Be ready for very slow growth for the first few seasons.
Wide spacing is crucial for the success of goatsbeard, despite its initial small appearance during planting.
Although goatsbeards may look small when planted, wide spacing is essential for their success. These perennials can grow up to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide when in full bloom! Space plants 2 to 4 feet apart. You may want to fill in the front area with annual flowers that tolerate partial shade to cover the bare ground while goatsbeard shrubs get established.
How to Grow
Like most native plants, this perennial is exceptionally easy to grow in its indigenous range as long as it has similar conditions to its wild habitat.
Excessive sun exposure can lead to leaf scorching in this woodland plant.
In cool northern zones, you can plant goatsbeard in full sun. In warmer areas, the plant prefers partial shade. Dappled shade near a forest canopy or partial shadows of a building is ideal. Too much sun can scorch the leaves of this woodland plant.
High watering needs are emphasized, making sure the soil remains consistently moist.
The only major requirement this species asks for is plenty of water. The foliage can quickly wilt and turn brown if the soil dries out. It does not do well in drought and needs consistently moist, wet soil. However, be sure the soil never gets soggy, as this can lead to root rot.
Goatsbeard naturally thrives in moist shade, along streams, or in wet soil areas where water accumulates after rainfall. As long as there is ample drainage, the plant loves to soak up all the water it can get.
It is recommended to incorporate compost or peat moss to enhance moisture retention.
Goatsbeard prefers a loamy soil rich in organic matter. The pH can range from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline as long as it is fertile and moist. It’s best to mix in compost or peat moss at the time of planting to ensure the soil holds moisture throughout the summer. If you have heavy clay soil, loosen it and improve the organic matter content so the plant doesn’t sit in soggy conditions.
Climate and Temperature
This herbaceous perennial sheds its leaves and retreats in winter but vigorously regrows in spring.
This North American native species has a wide temperature range from USDA zones 3 through 8. It doesn’t tolerate the heat and humidity of the South, but it can endure extreme northern winters once it enters dormancy.
It doesn’t require winter protection or preparation as long as the plant is established 5-6 weeks before the first expected fall frost. Cold winter temperatures are actually desirable because they keep the perennial in its dormant state and naturally stratify the seeds if you wish for the plant to self-sow and form a colony.
Consider supplementing with a slow-release all-purpose fertilizer if your soil is particularly impoverished.
Native woodland plants rarely require fertilizer. The only fertility goatsbeard needs is an annual amendment of compost, peat moss, or leaf mulch to mimic its wild woodland habitat. I like to toss a shovel of leaf mold compost at the base of the plants each spring as new leaves emerge.
If your soil is exceptionally poor, you may want to add a slow-release all-purpose fertilizer in the first few seasons. However, too much nitrogen can lead to wimpy stems, overgrowth of foliage, and a lack of blooms.
Goatsbeard stands out as an effortlessly easy ornamental to cultivate.
Goatsbeard is one of the most low-maintenance ornamentals you can grow. You don’t need to prune, deadhead, or do anything at all. Some gardeners prefer to remove dead or dwindling flower stalks to make the plant look tidy, but deadheading won’t trigger a second bloom the way it does with hydrangeas or rhododendrons.
Several domesticated cultivars have been developed for different aesthetics and regions. They all have virtually the same growth requirements but different sizes and shapes:
This compact goatsbeard reaches a height of only 3 feet and features finer leaves.
In contrast to the massive wild type, this compact goatsbeard grows only 3 feet tall and has finer leaves. The flowers are less showy, but the foliage is very attractive as a backdrop in a home landscape.
The ‘Zweiweltenkind’ variety of goatsbeard is a robust plant suitable for windy garden areas.
If you have a windy garden area needing a buffer, this stout variety is more sturdy than the tall wild goatsbeard. It only grows about 30” tall and makes a nice border plant. ‘Zweiweltenkind’ is a German term for “child of two worlds,” perhaps a reference to this plant’s ability to grow in woodland or open sun settings.
Developed in Ireland, this compact cultivar features fern-like leaves in a rich, deep green hue.
Another compact cultivar, this variety was developed in Ireland and has ultra-deep green fern-like leaves. The iconic white panicles of flowers are equally as beautiful as the wild type.
Grow goatsbeard alongside other native woodland plants that enjoy rich, moist soils and partial shade. Some of our favorite picks include:
Monkshood is a tall herbaceous perennial featuring lacy foliage and distinctive hooded flowers.
Also known as wolfsbane Aconitum, monkshood is a tall herbaceous perennial with lacy foliage and unique hooded flowers in purple, blue, white, or pink. The plant grows well in partial shade and rich, well-drained soil.
The eye-catching colorful blossoms contrast nicely with goatsbeard’s creamy-white plumes of flowers. They work well together in the garden and in floral arrangements. Like Aruncus diocius, monkshood is also hardy in zones 3-8.
Planting columbines in front of goatsbeard beds adds an iconic touch.
These iconic perennial flowers are perfect for planting in front of goatsbeard beds. Columbines look excellent as a large group or row plantings with a backdrop of feathery goatsbeard flowers. They enjoy the same loamy soil, partial sunlight, and mild to cool weather of zones 3-8.
Consider planting indigenous ferns near goatsbeard shrubs.
For a mystical woodland garden, plant native ferns like lady fern or maidenhair fern near goatsbeard shrubs. Ferns especially appreciate the moisture and shade of an interplanting with this native species, particularly if grown in a rain garden or forest margin.
This ground cover appreciates the constant moisture found in woodlands or rain gardens.
Wild ginger is the perfect native ground cover to keep control of weeds near your goatsbeard. It doesn’t mind its neighbor’s dappled shade and clumpy, rhizomatous growth. Moreover, wild ginger appreciates the continuous moisture of a woodland or rain garden.
Astilbe features vibrant blooms with feathery panicles similar to goatsbeard.
Though they’re commonly mistaken as relatives, astilbe and goatsbeard are from entirely different families. Astilbe is a member of the Saxifragaceae family and has bright, colorful blooms with feathery panicles, much like goatsbeard. When planted together, these two large herbaceous perennials are striking, creating a wonderland of wispy flowers throughout the summer.
Pests and Diseases
Goatsbeard rarely has any problems with pests but can occasionally succumb to root rot.
The initial indicators of root rot manifest as limp, drooping foliage despite ample soil moisture.
Although this plant loves moist soil, sogginess is a recipe for disaster. Goatsbeard cannot survive in standing water or saturated soil. The early signs of root rot include droopy, wilted foliage despite plenty of soil moisture. The rhizomes may appear blackened, mushy, or rotten if you dig them up.
The best course of action is to cut out and remove infected parts or transplant the specimen to an area with better drainage. Amending with peat moss, compost, or leaf litter can improve drainage.
Goatsbeard roots served medicinal purposes for Native Americans, but their primary contemporary role is ornamental.
Native Americans used goatsbeard roots for medicinal purposes, but its primary use today is as a perennial ornamental plant. Grow goatsbeard as a border plant, rain garden species, shady woodland plant, ornamental backdrop, or a transition species along forest edges. Be sure it doesn’t receive too much sunlight, as this can scorch the leaves.
This attractive native perennial is extremely easy to grow if you have some patience. Plant it in an area with consistently moist (not soggy) soil rich in organic matter. In northern climates, it can thrive in full sun or dappled shade, but it needs plenty of afternoon shade in the warm South.