Which plant was known in ancient lore as the answer to a maiden’s prayer, was used to promote good eyesight, might keep you from catching the plague, and may give you a bad burn?
This herb isn’t so easy to guess, for it does not put in an appearance in many contemporary herb gardens. But rue is a beautiful, blue-green lacy-leaved perennial herb with a fascinating history. Why not give it a try in your garden?
Rue is easy to grow. It isn’t choosy about soils, although it enjoys good drainage and full sun. It is winter hardy. If it likes its location, it can grow to three feet. Like most herbs, it is gathered before it comes into flower, although the yellow blossoms may be left to develop basket-like seedpods that are a nice addition to wreaths and dried arrangements. Its unusual blue-green color makes it a cool companion for silver plants, and the foliage is a light and lacy contrast to green herbs. But beware of working with the plant in strong sunlight; a substance in the leaves (furocoumarin) reacts to the sun. Sap rubbed on the skin can cause reddening, blistering, and even a severe burn. You may rue the day you gathered rue!
Rue doesn't have an extensive culinary history. Its bitter, peppery leaves are often used in Middle Eastern cuisines. You may enjoy adding them in small amounts to salads, marinades, soups, and stews. Because of their musky odor, the leaves are sometimes added to insect-repelling sachets. If you enjoy pressed-flower crafts, press the lacy leaves flat in a flower press and use them as an accent foliage. They retain their blue-green color even when dried.
In folk medicine, the plant has had several important uses. Like other antiseptic, antibiotic herbs. it was used to help prevent infection. Perhaps the most famous example was its storied used in Three Thieves Vinegar. A trio of thirteenth-century thieves, intent on robbing the corpses of plague victims, soaked cloths in vinegar steeped with rue, thyme, sage, and lavender and tied them across their mouths and noses. The trick was said to have worked, and the vinegar, with various ingredients, became a well-known weapon against infectious disease.
Rue was also used as a traditional abortifacient. According to Steven Foster, in Herbal Renaissance, a tea of the herb has been reported to induce abortion in 12-24 hours. (The Scots had a saying for it: Rue in thyme is a maiden’s posy.) The woman took her chances, however, because the tea also induced vomiting, digestive pain, delirium, and even death. (The active dose is the same as a toxic dose.) If you're pregnant, it's best to leave rue in the garden.
A third folk-medicine use of rue has recently received important attention from scientiests. The antioxidant flavenoid rutin, one of rue’s major constituents, is known to decrease capillary hemorrhage, and the herb has long been used to treat varicose veins and retinal bleeding. In Germany, where herbal medicine is more widely accepted by the medical community than in America, scientists have used rue with some success to treat macular degeneration, a progressive disease of the retina that can cause blindness. Interestingly, the early Romans seem to have known something about rue's ability to improve vision, for Roman painters bathed their eyes with rue tea in order to see colors more clearly.
The idea that rue could improve vision had its corollary in folk superstition. In northern Europe in the Middle Ages, it was thought that an amulet filled with rue could lend you second sight, allowing you to see evil in the hearts of others. (If you met a witch in the street, you could see her for who she was.) It was also said to protect you from evil - hence, Shakespeare’s reference to it as the "herb of grace." In Europe, rue was planted around many worship sites, and priests used it as a brush to shake holy water to purify the church. Rue is the national flower of Latvia, where it is grown in many gardens. Try some in yours!
For much more about rue, read Rueful Death, the fifth China Bayles herbal mystery, by Susan Wittig Albert. China Bayles is a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at www.mysterypartners.com