Rue is a herb that was known to the ancients and used to ward off spells and witches. Perhaps this was because of its strong smell which isn’t exactly pleasant. It originated in Southern Europe, and is believed to have been yet another of those herbs that was introduced to Britain by the Romans. It grows wild in Britain in northern England, but this plant was not much used in medicine as its smell is even more pungent than Garden Rue, which has been grown in gardens for centuries for its medicinal properties. Its Latin name “graveolens” comes from gravis meaning heavy and olere meaning smell. Ruta comes from the Greek, reuo meaning to set free, and this may be a reference to the fact that rue was highly esteemed and thought to rid the body of a great number of ailments.
Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, used rue as the principle ingredient of an antidote to the poison of Mithradates Eupator and it was thought by ancient Greeks to be able to ward off witchcraft as they used it when eating with strangers as it stopped nervous stomach complaint and indigestion, which, they believed were induced by the witchcraft of strangers they ate in front of.
Pliny wrote that artists and sculptors consumed a lot of rue in the belief that it would help keep their eyesight in perfect shape.
Gerard the English herbalist tells us that Dioscorides believed that rue grew best under the shade of the fig tree. In fact rue likes to grow in sheltered spots. He went on to say this about the plant: - “if a man be anointed with the juice o rue, the poison of wolf’s bane, mushrooms and todestoles, the bites of serpents, stinging of scorpions, bees, hornets and wasps will not hurt him”.
Rue water was sprinkled in houses to rid them of fleas and lice, and in the Middle Ages people would carry a bunch of rue when they went out to ward off the plague and other diseases. Judges would take it into court rooms with them so that they were not contaminated by the prisoners brought to the dock. People thought that the strong smell of the plant could kill diseases that were contagious.
Rue is also known as the Herb of Repentance possibly because brushes of rue twigs were used to sprinkle holy water in churches before High Mass. It was also called Herb of Grace.
Shakespeare makes reference to this in Richard III: -
“Here in this place
I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace;
Rue, even for ruth, shall shortly here be seen,
In the remembrance of a weeping queen.”
Again in Hamlet, he has Ophelia say in Act 4 sc 5:-
“There’s fennel for you and columbine; 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. There’s a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died; they say he made a good death.”
Here Shakespeare gives rue the meaning of regret as well as the name of the herb.
Dikes of Saxony used rue as a symbol of honour and the Order of the Rutenkrone (Crown of Rue) was bestowed on Queen Elizabeth II’s father. In Britain rue has been used since the middle of the 17th century in the Collar of the Order of the Thistle in Britain.
The expressed juice of rue was once used to cure earache, but rue must be treated with caution and it is not advisable to use it without a doctor’s supervision as it can have violent side-effects and induce vomiting. It has been used to bring about abortions and acts on the uterine muscles. It is a useful anti-spasmodic though when you get stomach cramps and it has been used as an emmenogogue to regulate the menstrual blood flow. Pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid using it.
A tisane can be made from the young tops of the rue plant- 1 ounce of tops to 1 pint of boiling water, left to steep for 15 minutes. This is a good antispasmodic and can be used to calm anyone who is hysterical. Rue has sedative properties. Culpeper recommended it to be applied externally to relieve joint pains, especially those connected with sciatica. The bruised leaves should be applied to the painful area. You can make a hot poultice with the leaves and apply it to the chest to relieve chronic bronchitis too. The plant contains rutin which supports and strengthens the inner walls of blood vessels and helps reduce blood pressure. Fresh leaves can be bruised and applied to the forehead and temples to get rid of headaches and the juice will prevent nightmares and help with nervous conditions. Chewing a leaf has the same effects as chewing kalvanji or Nigella sativa seeds; this will relieve nervous headaches and prevent giddiness.
The whole herb can be used in poultices but the most potent part of the plant is the top, picked before it flowers.
The recipe below has been adapted from a recipe used by the Romans.
RUE CHEESE DIP
½ bulb of garlic, peeled and finely minced
4 oz crumbly Feta cheese
2 celery stalks, finely minced with hard veins removed
½ bunch of fresh coriander leaves, finely minced
½ bunch of rue leaves, finely minced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsps white wine vinegar
Make a creamy paste with the Feta cheese by pounding it with a little olive oil. Blend all the other ingredients then add the Feta to the blender with the rest of the olive oil and the wine vinegar.
Store in the fridge until you are ready to use it. (Leave to stand for 15 minutes if you want to serve it almost immediately.) It is best to keep it overnight for best results.
This has Taste and is a Treat.