Home   A   B   C   D   E   F   G   H   I   J   K   L   M   N   O   P   Q   R   S   T   U   V   W   X   Y   Z 

Rue, the Herb of Grace

Shakespeare called rue the herb o'grace o'Sundays, and the English writer Elizabeth Goudge called one of her novels Herb of Grace. Down through the ages, rue has been the symbol of loss, regret and bitter lessons.

In the world of herbal medicine, rue does not have such a sad image, but it is associated with astringency and fortitude. This is possibly because this stubborn herb will grow anywhere, but seems to grow best in the poorest soil in the garden.

In fact, if you want to grow rue successfully, pick the least attractive spot, where nothing else has survived. Rue is not in itself an attractive plant it has a bitter taste and a disagreeable smell, and looks like an odd little weed.

But for all its unprepossessing looks, rue is a very strong herb, and it should be used with care. This Mediterranean plant has hidden virtues and vices: the Latin name of this plant, ruta, comes from the Greek reuo, which means freedom, and indeed herbalists believed strongly that rue would provide freedom from many diseases. It was given magical properties in ancient times and the Middle Ages, as a talisman against witchcraft and an essential ingredient in spell breakers.

The Catholic Church gave rue its association with repentance and grace, by using sprigs of rue to sprinkle holy water.

In spite of its bitter taste, it is edible, and can still be found in rustic Mediterranean salads. But it is not advised to eat a lot of rue or drink it as a tea, as it can be toxic in large amounts. The sap of rue is also very strong and can actually burn the skin if it comes into contact.

In the Middle Ages, when the Black Death scoured Europe in search of victims, there were four thieves who robbed the bodies of the dead, apparently impervious to the deadly contagion. When finally caught, they attributed their immunity to a potion which came to be known as the Vinegar of the Four Thieves. Rue was one of the ingredients in this extraordinary brew, which also contained vinegar, lavender, sage, rosemary, mint, wormwood and garlic. No doubt it stank to high Heaven, but then so did everything else in the plague years.

But why would anyone be interested in growing rue today? Well, one possible use for rue is as a deterrent to fleas. In olden times, rue was boiled in water and strained, and the water was sprinkled around the house. This was said to deter fleas and other pests.

As the four thieves proved, rue's astringent antiseptic properties make it valuable. If you want a green alternative to harsh chemicals in your kitchen and bathroom, a wash made with rue bruised and steeped in vinegar will be an effective antiseptic for floors and surfaces.

Muslin bags of dried rue in closets and airing cupboards will deter insects, and growing rue in the garden will help to curtail pests.

In earlier times, no herbal garden was complete without rue but its popularity has waned so much now that it is rarely seen. Most gardeners prefer to grow plants that do not have to be handled with so much care.

But for those who want to recreate a medieval garden, or simply want to grow a very useful household herb, rue still has some grace to offer.

Privacy Policy