Thursday, 31 March 2016


“There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference...” – Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.

rue 1 |ruː| verb (rues, rueing or ruing, rued) [ with obj. ]
Bitterly regret (something one has done or allowed to happen) and wish it undone: Ferguson will rue the day he turned down that offer | She might live to rue this impetuous decision.
noun [ mass noun ] archaic
Repentance; regret: With rue my heart is laden.
Compassion; pity: Tears of pitying rue.

This definition above is one meaning of the word rue, the other relates to the herb that the quote from “Hamlet” is referring to. Shakespeare is of course in punning mode in that quote and the herb rue lends itself well to Ophelia’s sentiments.

Ruta graveolens, commonly known as rue, common rue or herb-of-grace, is a species of Ruta in the family Rutaceae grown as an ornamental plant and as a herb. It is native to the Balkan Peninsula. It is now grown throughout the world in gardens, especially for its striking bluish leaves, and sometimes for its tolerance of hot and dry soil conditions. It is also cultivated as a medicinal herb, as a condiment, and to a lesser extent as an insect repellent.

The name Ruta is from the Greek reuo (“to set free”), because this herb is so efficacious in various diseases. It was much used by the Ancients; Hippocrates specially commended it, and it constituted a chief ingredient of the famous antidote to poison used by Mithridates. The Greeks regarded it as a remedy to magic, because it served to assuage the nervous indigestion they suffered when eating before strangers, which they attributed to witchcraft. In the Middle Ages and later, it was considered (in many parts of Europe) a powerful defence against witches, and was used in many spells. It was also thought to bestow second sight.

The stem of rue is woody in the lower part, and tender in the young shoots. The leaves are alternate, bluish-green, bi- or tripinnate, and emit a powerful, disagreeable (for most people) odour and have an exceedingly bitter, acrid and nauseous taste. I rather like the smell of rue, while my mother dislikes it intensely, and my father is quite indifferent to it.

The greenish-yellow flowers are in terminal panicles, blossoming from June to September in the Northern Hemisphere. The first flower that opens has usually ten stamens, the others eight only. In England Rue is one of the oldest garden plants, cultivated for its use medicinally, having, together with other herbs, been introduced by the Romans, but it is not found in a wild state except rarely on the hills of Lancashire and Yorkshire. This wild form is even more intense in smell than the garden rue.

The plant grows almost anywhere, but thrives best in a partially sheltered and dry situation. Propagation may be effected by seeds, sown outside, broadcast, in spring, raked in and the beds kept free from weeds, the seedlings, when about 4 cm high, being transplanted into fresh beds, allowing about 40 cm each way, as the plants become busy. Alternatively, it is easy to strike cuttings, taken in spring and inserted for a time, until well rooted, in a shady border. It is said the best cuttings to use are those stolen from a thriving plant in some stranger’s garden. However, every slip or cutting of the young wood will readily grow, and this is the most expeditious way of raising a stock. Rue will live much longer and is less liable to be injured by frost in winter when grown in a poor, dry, infertile soil rather than in good ground.

Rue does have a culinary use if used sparingly, but it is bitter and gastric discomfort may be experienced by some individuals. Although used more extensively in former times, it is not an herb that is typically found in modern cuisine, and is today largely unknown to the general public and most chefs, and unavailable in grocery stores. Rue extracts are mutagenic and hepatotoxic! Large doses can cause violent gastric pain, vomiting, systemic complications, and death. Exposure to common rue, or herbal preparations derived from it, can cause severe phytophotodermatitis, which results in burn-like blisters on the skin! One can see why most people eschew it!

Nevertheless, rue is a component of berbere, the characteristic Ethiopian spice mixture, and as such is encountered in Ethiopian cuisine. It was used extensively in ancient Near Eastern and Roman cuisine (according to Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq and Apicius). Rue leaves and berries are an important part of the cuisine of Ethiopia. Rue is used as a traditional flavouring in Greece and other Mediterranean countries.

In Istria (a region in Croatia), and in Northern Italy, it is used to give a special flavour to grappa/raki and most of the time a little branch of the plant can be found in the bottle. This is called grappa alla ruta. Seeds can be used for porridge. The bitter leaf can be added to eggs, cheese, fish, or mixed with damson plums and wine to produce a meat sauce. In Italy in Friuli Venezia-Giulia, the young branches of the plant are dipped in a batter, deep-fried in oil, and consumed with salt or sugar. They are also used on their own to aromatise a specific type of omelette. Rue was also used in Old World beers as a flavouring ingredient.

In the language of flowers, the rue plant stands for sorrow or repentance. Rue flowers mean grace, clear vision. At one time the holy water was sprinkled from brushes made of Rue at the ceremony usually preceding the Sunday celebration of High Mass, for which reason it is supposed it was named the Herb of Repentance and the Herb of Grace.

Rue has been used in herbal medicine from time immemorial. Pliny reported rue to be of such effect for the preservation of sight that the painters of his time used to devour a great quantity of it, and the herb is still eaten by the Italians in their salads. It was supposed to make the sight both sharp and clear, especially when the vision had become dim through over-exertion of the eyes. It was with “Euphrasy and Rue” that Adam's sight was purged by Milton’s Angel in his “Paradise Lost”.

Gerard tells us: “The garden Rue, which is better than the wild Rue for physic’s use, grows most profitably, as Dioscorides said, under a fig tree.” But this is, probably, only a reference, originally, to the fact that the plant prefers a sheltered position. Country-people boil its leaves with treacle, thus making a conserve of them. These leaves are curative of croup in poultry. It has also been employed in the diseases of cattle.

Piperno, a Neapolitan physician, in 1625, commended Rue as a specific against epilepsy and vertigo, and for the former malady, at one time, some of this herb used to be suspended round the neck of the sufferer.

Rue is strongly stimulating and antispasmodic and is often employed, in form of a warm infusion, as an emmenagogue. In excessive doses, it is an acro-narcotic poison, and on account of its emetic tendencies should not be administered immediately after eating. It forms a useful medicine in hysterical affections, in coughs, croupy affections, colic and flatulence, being a mild stomachic. The oil may be given on sugar, or in hot water.

Externally, Rue is an active irritant, being employed as a rubefacient. If bruised and applied, the leaves will ease the severe pain of sciatica. The expressed juice, in small quantities, was a noted remedy for nervous nightmare, and the fresh leaves applied to the temples are said to relieve headache. Compresses saturated with a strong decoction of the plant, when applied to the chest, have been used beneficially for chronic bronchitis. If a leaf or two be chewed, a refreshing aromatic flavour will pervade the mouth and any nervous headache, giddiness, hysterical spasm, or palpitation will be quickly relieved.

If you intend to use rue medicinally, consult a qualified herbalist as rue in high doses can be toxic!

This post is part of the Floral Friday Fotos meme,
and also part of the Friday Greens meme.

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