Rich in herbal lore, common rue is an ornamental beauty that relieves eyestrain and muscle spasms.
• Ruta graveolens
• Rutaceae family
• Hardy perennial
• Also known as herb of grace and herb of repentance
Common rue is an herb of many connotations. It’s also known as herb of grace, or herbygrass, from its use in the early Roman Catholic Church to sprinkle holy water and wash away sins. (Hyssop was the herb of choice in the Middle Ages, but rue was also used, perhaps because of its long-standing reputation as a disinfectant.) The custom derived from a Roman ceremony (using a laurel branch) to purify weapons and standards following a battle.
Rue is associated with sorrow, regret and compassion only in the English language. When the Romans introduced the rue herb plant to England, they called it by its Latin name (now the generic name), Ruta. When Anglicized and shortened to “rue,” the name sounded just like the word meaning “sorrow,” but that word comes from an Old English word, hreow. (Some believe that the word Ruta comes from a Greek word meaning “to set free.”) The specific name, graveolens, is Latin for “having a strong or offensive smell” (dill is Anethum graveolens). Whether rue’s odor is either strong or offensive is open to debate; usually, it’s described as “musty.” Ruta is the genus belonging to the family Rutaceae, members of which include aromatic citrus trees as well as gas plant (Dictamnus albus), a lovely white- or pink-flowered perennial.
Besides a musty odor, rue leaves have a bitter flavor. Nevertheless, the oil and fresh or dried leaves have been widely used in perfumes and foods of all sorts. The seeds were used in early Roman cooking. In the Middle Ages, the leaves were a strewing herb believed to dispel insects, scorpions and serpents. Holding a sprig up to one’s nose was thought to ward off plague, and a sprig hung around the neck was thought to protect against disease as late as the mid-19th century. Courtrooms in England were strewn with rue to protect the judges from “jail fever.” Today, both the herb and the oil are used as a “flavor component” of a wide variety of processed foods and beverages, though in minute quantities. Rue still figures in the diet of some cultures. Not only does a little go a long way because of the bitterness, but more than a little is toxic, causing gastrointestinal and other symptoms similar to some of those for which it was given as a remedy.
Warts, cancer, poor eyesight, worms, scarlet fever and nervousness as a result of witchcraft are a few of the conditions that rue has been summoned to treat. It’s likely that rue’s reputation as a medicinal herb arose because of its strong smell and bitter flavor. The fibrous roots of this herb reminded some people of the blood vessels in the eye, which may account for its use as an eyestrain treatment.
Nevertheless, some medicinal uses have a scientific basis: rutin, a substance known to be effective in combating fragility of the capillaries, was first isolated from common rue, and the herb’s use as an antispasmodic agent has been touted by the German Commission E Monographs. Rue has been used in many cultures to bring on delayed menstrual periods and abortions, and several of its constituents have been shown to have abortive properties. Needless to say, pregnant women should not take it internally.
In addition to causing possible internal toxicity, contact with rue’s volatile leaf oils may cause blistering, itching and burning of the skin. It makes sense to wear gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants when working around rue plants. Interestingly, country folk used to apply crushed rue leaves to bee stings and rheumatic joints.
Despite rue’s long history as a medicinal and culinary herb, it is grown today primarily as an ornamental. It has blue-green, oval-lobed leaflets with a whitish bloom; neat habit; and strange, tiny yellow four-parted flowers from midsummer to fall.
Native to southern Europe, the plant is evergreen in warm climates, but in colder areas, the top dies back to the ground in winter. The stem is woody at the base. Rue is hardy in Zones 4 to 10, grows in sun but tolerates part shade, and grows best in a well-drained good soil of pH 7.0.
Rue is easily grown from seed, though slow to germinate. Sow seeds indoors in late winter and transplant seedlings to the garden in late spring. Plants flower in their second year in midsummer. If deadheaded and fertilized lightly, they may bloom a second time.
Rue also can be grown in containers outdoors or on a sunny windowsill. Just don’t place it where someone can brush up against it.
Rue is worth growing just for its ornamental value; several cultivars approach perfection. ‘Blue Beauty’ and ‘Blue Mound’ are more compact forms with bluer leaves. ‘Curly Girl’ is compact and has finer leaves. ‘Variegata’ has irregular creamy leaf splotches that may turn green in hot weather but change back in cooler weather. This cultivar may be propagated from seed. Propagate rue herb plants by division in spring or stem cuttings taken in late summer.
Rue is reserved and well-behaved while dill and borage sprawl. The species, which may grow to 3 feet tall, needs a place at the back of the bed, while some cultivars, which are shorter and more compact, can be set more toward the front. Any of them can be used as a hedge, but be careful when trimming if you are sensitive to the oil.
Rue was once believed to improve the eyesight and creativity, and Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were said to regularly use it for these benefits. —Breverton’s Complete Herbal (Lyons Press, 2012)
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