Common Names #
Garden Rue, Herb of Grace, Herb Rue, Witchbane, Common Rue, Herbygrass, Mother of the Herb, Herb of Repentance, Herb of Grace
About This Plant #
Rue, an old-fashioned heirloom herb plant, with its feathery evergreen blue-green foliage is a plant steeped in lore. Once used for a myriad of applications, its popularity has waned in recent years. But this pretty, ornamental herb of our ancestors is worthy of a place in our gardens. It typically grows in a mound shape, about two feet tall and one to two feet wide. This perennial herb is hardy in USDA zones 4-7 and grows easily without much care. Its woody stems allow it to be pruned into a neat small hedge and its beautiful hue will complement the blooms and foliage of its garden companions.
The leaves of Rue are delicate and fern-like in appearance, looking almost lace-like. They are deeply divided bi- or tripinnate, small and oblong, alternate, and greyish or blue-green in color which lasts all Winter long. It grows bushy and compact and its stem is woody on its lower parts. Its flowers grow in flattened clusters atop sturdy stalks that stand above the foliage, blooming in early Summer. Its cup-shaped, yellow blossoms are four-petaled with frilly edges and a green center. It makes a lovely cut flower. Rue is a notoriously aromatic plant, with many describing its scent as strong and bittersweet, powerful and disagreeable. Others perceive the odor as pleasant and orange-like. Its taste is bitter and acrid and its raw leaves have a very mild numbing effect on the tongue.
Used today as a kitchen condiment, and used historically for medicinal purposes, perhaps the most unique part of the story of Rue is its traditional role in magick and witchcraft. Rue has always been seen as a protectant plant. It was hung in doorways and windows to prevent evil from entering a house and was worn on belts to keep witches away. It is still grown in South America today as a garden ornamental and because of the belief that it provides protection from evil. Hippocrates was fond of Rue and it was a chief ingredient in Mithridates’ famous antidote to poison. In the Middle Ages, it was often used in spells as a defense against witches. The Catholic church used branches of Rue to sprinkle holy water on congregants which earned it the name “Herb of Grace”. Rue was valued as an herb that could bestow “second sight” – not only was it believed to preserve sight, especially in that of strained eyes, it was believed to make vision sharp and clear. It was consumed by painters of the time, including Michelangelo and Leonardo De Vinci. Rue is the national herb of Lithuania and is the most frequently referenced herb in Lithuanian folk songs, associated with virginity and maidenhood. Rue’s protective qualities extended beyond witches however to common pestilence and plagues. It was used as a strewing herb, being scattered across floors and walkways to keeps pests and illness away from crowded areas. Judges used to keep a sprig of Rue on their bench to protect against the pestilence and infection brought into court by prisoners. Rue was one of the ingredients in Four Thieves Vinegar. Some even say the symbol for the suit of clubs in ordinary playing cards was modeled after a leaf of Rue.
Rue is a member of the Rutaceae, or citrus family. The family consists of more than 1,600 species of shrubs and small trees that grow mostly in temperate climates. The name of the genus Ruta, is said to come from the Latin word for “bitter”. Others say that Ruta is from the Greek “reuo” meaning “to set free”. Some say this refers to being “set free” from disease, others understand “set free” to refer to breaking the spells of witches. The specific epithet, graveolens, means strong or ill-smelling coming from the Latin words “grave” meaning “heavy, oppressive, burdensome” and “olens” meaning “smell”. The common name “Rue” means to regret.
Rue is known to repel fleas and mosquitos. Deer and rabbits, as well as dogs and cats, don’t like it either. It repels Japanese beetles and is considered a good companion plant for Strawberries, Figs, Roses, and Raspberries. It can be grown as a garden border or Rue leaf clippings can be scattered in an infested area. It is advised to not plant Rue near Cabbage, Cucumber, Sage, Mint, or any Basils. Butterflies love it, however, including Swallowtails.
Take heed though – you should wear gloves and long sleeves if working with or near Rue and don’t touch the leaves on a sunny day. The essential oils in the sap of Rue contain furanocoumarins which cause photodermatitis. These sensitize the skin to light, causing blisters, burns, and rashes in many people once exposed to the sap and then exposed to sunlight. Wash your skin off after being in contact with Rue and never allow children to touch the plant as young ones tend to be more sensitive to furanocoumarins.
Also note that Rue is toxic in large doses, and should only be used sparingly as a kitchen condiment (which many cultures do use today). Large doses can cause violent gastric pain, vomiting, systemic complications, and death.
Rue is easy to grow from seed. The seeds need light to germinate, so sow them on the surface of the soil and gently press them to the soil to ensure good contact, but do not cover them. Seeds take from 5-21 days to germinate. Rue can also be propagated by cuttings taken from the tips of branches in the Spring.
Rue should be thinned or transplanted into its permanent position in late Spring or early Summer after the last Spring frost. Plants should be spaced 12 – 18 inches apart.
Rue is an easy plant to maintain. It will grow almost anywhere including in full sun in dry, poor soil, but ideally has a little shade and fertile soil to thrive. It needs well-draining soil as root rot can be an issue if the soil stays wet. It prefers to stay on the dryer side once established and is drought tolerant. It will actually stand up to cold Winters and frost better when grown in poor soil as opposed to fertile. A hard freeze can make this evergreen plant droopy, but it will perk back up as soon as the temperature warm back up.
Always wear long sleeves and gloves when pruning or handling Rue and work with it on shady days. It will self-seed readily, so be sure to deadhead it if you hope to keep it contained. It is a good idea to mulch it heavily in the Winter in very cold areas. In late Winter, cut the plant down to three or four inches above the ground, and within a couple of weeks, the plants will look strong and healthy. It flowers in late Spring on the fresh, new wood. Old, woody plants will especially benefit from a hard pruning. The plants have a lifespan of five to six years.
Seed Harvest #
Rue’s flowers give way to brown seed pods that when opened reveal and drop many tiny black seeds. These seedpods are easy to harvest. Simply wait for the capsules to mature and turn brown, pop the capsules open and collect the seed.
Plant Uses #
- Culinary Spice
- Pest deterrent
Culinary Uses #
Rue is toxic in large quantities, but it does have a place in the kitchen as a spice and condiment and can commonly be found in foods of several cultures around the world. The fresh leaves are used in very small amounts and are said to give a flavor like strong blue cheese. Rue was commonly used in ancient Roman cooking and Italians today eat it in their salads. The Romans used it in a spicy seasoning paste made with Garlic, hard cheese, Coriander, and Celery Seeds. Rue is a favorite in Ethiopian dishes including in Ethiopian coffee. Rue goes well with acidic flavors such as vinegar and tomatoes and is used in the making of pickles. It can be added to flavor meats, cheeses, and eggs. It is used sometimes to flavor liquors, such as grappa con ruta.
Rue is in the citrus family and contains lots of rutin which is the same bitter constituent that is found in the white parts of Oranges. The bitterness of Rue is evident in large doses, but in smaller amounts, it has more of a pleasant, musky flavor. You can capture the flavor of Rue without the bitterness by putting it in a boiling sauce for no more than a minute and then removing it. The essential oils will be extracted, but not the bitter rutin.
Medicinal Uses #
While Rue was used medicinally in a number of ways traditionally, the consensus among the herbal community today is that it is simply too dangerous of an herb to be used safely by unqualified practitioners. All parts of the plant are poisonous in large quantities and should not be used at all if pregnant as it can induce abortions. Consuming too much can lead to severe gastric distress and even death.
Traditionally, the whole plant was used both fresh or dried. The tops of the young shoots are the most potent part and were gathered just before the plants flowered. The dried plant is greyish-green in color and has a similar taste and odor as the fresh herb, but less potent. It was used in cases of hysterical afflictions, in coughs, croupy conditions, colic, and flatulence. Compresses saturated in a strong decoction of Rue were applied to the chest for chronic bronchitis. Warm infusions were consumed as an emmenagogue. Rue is considered strongly stimulating and antispasmodic. It was also used to cure croup in poultry and various diseases in cattle. The juice was used in cases of earache.
Rue is native to the Balkan Peninsula and southeastern Europe, especially in the Mediterranean region.