20-something years later, thalictrum lives on

I HAVE COMPLAINED RECENTLY about plants I’ve had forever that I wish would simply go away. A counterpoint: Thalictrum rochebrunianum, a towering meadow rue, has been here more than 20 years, too, and I sincerely hope it never departs my company.

This old-friend thalictrum is a Japanese native, but there are American species, too, such as the charming little rue anemone, Thalictrum thalictroides, with white blooms in spring near the woodland floor.

My summertime companion, though, produces lavish lavender 3-foot-wide sprays of tiny flowers, each with showy yellow stamens, on 10-foot stems that are painted appropriately purple (below) and dressed up with delicate, blue-green foliage that remind me of columbine. No wonder, since  they are cousins in the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family, as are delphiniums and clematis and Aconitum, among other beauties. A note about the height of my stalwart of a giant plant: All the references say it gets to 6 or 7 feet when blooming, but I took a tape measure into the garden: 10.

I keep reading that Thalictrum rochebrunianum is best massed, but on that point I heartily agree with Annie of Annie’s Annuals, who says:

“Ideal for rising above Roses and shorter subjects. Some say it’s best massed but my single plantings never fail to impress.”

Hey, my couple of plants—jutting up and looming above a winter-hazel shrub, Corylopsis spicata, that has been with me just as long–even looked good this year, when violent storms turned the stalks from decidedly vertical to horizontal (as in the photos). Bees adore it for its many weeks of bloom, and it even matches a pair of garden chairs (you can see one of them in the background, all blurry).

Easy, in sun or light shade, and hardy from Zone 4 or 5 to about Zone 9. Better still: Deer don’t eat it.

  1. Sara Tolson says:

    I planted 2 thalictrum about 4 years ago, not really knowing what they were. I had just started gardening and I loved their look. I would love to have more. Any tips on how do I get them to reproduce.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sara. I have never done it, but have read that spring division is possible. New plants can of course also be started from seed.

    2. Michelle Byers says:

      Mine seem to spread on their own, not sure if they are seeding themselves or just by their roots. It took a few years before this happened though. I have mine over a mass planting of Japanese painted ferns in the front of the border. An O ak-Leaf Hydrengea is behind it, makes a spectacular show.

  2. Hi Margaret
    I live in Brooklyn where houses are connected to each other, and I have a small back yard. At the back of the yard is a brick wall that runs about 3 feet deep and the top serves as a planter. The wall is about 4′ high, with a stair running in the middle, to the next yard which is above my property. My question is this – do you have any recommendations for plants against the base of the brick wall? I always feel that something should be there, but haven’t yet figured out what. The area is quite shady. I don’t want something that would be too deep as it is close to the space where I place a hammock.
    Thanks for your input.

  3. Rachel B. F. says:

    Thank you for your plant recommendation, I can’t wait to try it. In your garden can Thalictrum rochebrunianum take very deep shade, or does it prefer at least a bit of sun?

  4. Juniper gardener says:

    I have this lovely, and had even more pleasure last year when I had to cut it down when the buds were compromised (looked like thrips but not sure). Anyway, despite the late cut, it set new buds and bloomed lower (no flopping) and longer (for weeks). Good came out of bad.

  5. Melodie says:

    My good friend just dug some out of her garden and gave them to me! They dried out, but i planted them anyway, as she says they will be fine and surprise me next year, tough they are. One that was very tall but battered has been blooming for about two weeks…love them.

  6. TerryK says:

    Oh, it is beautiful! Have to track this down! It looks like it could be also used towards the front of the boarder because it is wispy. Would that be a mistake?

  7. abigail says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I was wondering what other vibrant bloomers will do well in light shade to shade? I love shade plants but am looking to have brighter garden under some trees that will be viewed from a distance.

  8. Jean Bave Kerwin says:

    I couldn’t begin to do justice to the wonders of Thalictrm with words. Mine self-seed (I’m willing to share if anyone is interested), and have volunteered to provide a lacy screen through which to view my garden from the deck. I use them as foreground, background, middle ground. The first year they almost look like ground cover; the second, they get about 1 foot tall; the third, they shoot up to 8-10 feet and are covered with cloudy halos of pale purple blooms. I agree heartily with Margaret’s assessment of these wonderful garden friends!

  9. Dahlink says:

    I have just one Thalictrum, but it is putting on a show right now. Mine bends down after a hard rain, so keep that in mind TerryK, and maybe place at least in the middle of the border, not all the way in front.

  10. I’ve grown the yellow flowering Thalictrum for about 20 years also, in Brooklyn (though as of earlier this year I am in Kansas) and there is no need to divide it – it self seeds most generously. I just pull it out if it seeds itself where I don’t want it. Also, it usually does lean over by mid-summer, unless I am conscientious about staking it early. (I succeeded about half the time). I have found that the best, least visible way is to give it something to lean against. Pea twigs or bamboo stakes work well, crossed in front of where it leans. It doesn’t look ‘girdled’ at all that way.

  11. Lorie says:

    Oh, my! You have just made my day. I mail ordered some Thalictrum a couple of years ago ( and had a glorious e-mail conversation with the nursery owner) after what seemed like the definitive article about them was in Fine Gardening written by the gentleman at the Chicago Botanical who trials these things. Not much of a show for 2 years, but this year, next to the Joe Pye and Angelonia, it’s a VERY cool event. Mine are front of the border on a half wall because I didn’t know any better, but they are “in my face” and I’m loving it.

  12. Susan says:

    I love this Thalictrum. It is so difficult to photograph the spray of blooms. You’ve done a good job at capturing it!

  13. Carole Clarin says:

    I planted a Thalictrum rochebrunlanum in June and accidentally damaged the stem. I applied “first aid” by bandaging it and supporting it with stakes. I hoped it wouldn’t die! Although it has survived, due to all the rain in early summer, slugs had a feast! Tomorrow I plan to move it to a less shady location and because you say it is hardy, I’ll look forward to next summer!

  14. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I love the color of these blooms! I must add this Japanese variety to my garden. I have the American native and it grew taller than me this year. A beautiful plant!

  15. amy murphy says:

    To mass or not to mass thalictrum! Good question. I do both in my garden and I agree with both Margaret and Annie who have individual plants those who say mass. It is such an impressive plant that even one makes a statement, massed makes more of a statement.

    1. margaret says:

      I am thinking I must buy more, Amy. Not sure why I keep forgetting when I am at the nursery…thanks for the reminder!

  16. Miriam says:

    I have one on either side of my shade garden for about ten years. They don’t do particularly well. This year however, they are blooming. They also have self seeded new plants throughout the garden. Hope they grow up. No flowers yet. They are beautiful. But I think they do better in sun.

  17. Jean Bave Kerwin says:

    I have had my Thalictrum for years…now I have many of them; I continually promote them to my gardening friends. They are easy to grow, flourish in sun and shade, and seem to be well placed wherever they come up – Front or middle or back of the garden! I have no idea why they are not better-known!

  18. terri says:

    I don’t know about your deer, but unless I place protection around mine, the deer on my property have a field day.

  19. Sue Stein says:

    Rue has been on my garden bucket list, and I finally planted one yesterday. Very excited to watch it grow!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sue. Did you plant Rue (Ruta graveolens) the “herb,” or this “meadow rue” as Thalictrum is sometimes called?

  20. cathe krueger says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I found you by accident while researching a ‘little known’ and favorite plant in my garden-Thalictrum. I say little known from my experience in this area (Columbia County) as none of my avid gardner friends had heard of it. I’ve had it about 15 plus years! I am redesigning another garden on my property and was trying to identify which thalictrum I had? Seems pretty difficult to tell. It has the tiny delicate deep purple flowers but many in the photos do.
    Any advice for our zone (5) from your experience?
    Also, I would like to take a tour at your farm/gardens this season. Is there a schedule or is it by appointment? May I have some further information regarding this? Thank you.
    Cathe Krueger

  21. Beth Rinzler says:

    I live in Columbia County. NY and my thalictrum have grown to 10′ and I don’t seem to
    be able to find tall enough stakes. ( They also proliferate by themselves.) They are lined
    up outside the windows of my sunroom/livingroom but now are growing up to the second
    story and bending and tangling with one another after rainstorms. Help me to keep them
    straight and tall or suggest a way to hold them to 6′. Thanks so much.

    1. margaret says:

      I have the same issue. I have never tried “pinching” them the way I might a tall aster or sedum I want to keep smaller by bloom time…which I do in May or June with various other plants to make them stouter/bushier. Richard Hawke of Chicago Botanic trials them and wrote this article about Thalictrum, which might be worth a read, but I don’t see anything about the issue online except “may require staking” in some articles (how in the world could we stake these willowy giants?) and that they need adequate moisture to grow sturdily. Sorry not to have the answer.

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