Ruta graveolens

from the Greek reuo, to set free

Common Names: Herb of Grace, Countryman’s Treacle, Bashoush, Herbygrass, Hreow, Mother of Herbs, Rewe

Rue is a special herb for me, as it reminds me of my mother. She proudly claimed that rue was the herb of Lithuania, which was her heritage. As I investigated this somewhat unassuming plant, I discovered that rue was much more significant to not only Lithuanians, but to many other peoples, and has a celebrated reputation for medicinal and magical purposes through the ages.

Rue is a hardy evergreen perennial (Zone 5). The color of its leaves – a greenish blue, with an almost grayish cast – makes it a useful ornamental plant in today’s gardens. The leaves are rounded lobes of 4-5 spoon shaped segments. If you look at a leaf, you can see that it  looks very much like the suit of clubs in playing cards, and is supposedly the inspiration for that symbol. I have found that the leaves press dry beautifully and are an excellent addition to pressed flower pictures. The small, yellow, waxy, star-shaped flowers become attractive seed pods that are long-lasting and make an exceptional decorative accent in dried arrangements. Rue enjoys a sunny but protected site in well drained poor soil.

Many herbalists from antiquity to the present have greatly appreciated this herb. Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) commended it, and rue was the chief ingredient in one of the antidotes for poison used by King Mithridates VI (134 – 63 BC).  Pliny, the Elder (AD 23 – 79) claimed rue as beneficial in 84 remedies for various ailments, including protection from poisonous snakes. Hildegaard von Bingen (AD 1098- 1179) in her Physica offered that “the warmth of rue lessens the unjust warmth of melancholy and moderates the unjust coldness of melancholy”. Dioscorides (AD 40 – 90)  noted that the best rue “for physicks use” would be harvested from under a fig tree, and Plutarch (AD 46 – 120) alleged that rue “becommeth more sweet and milde in taste” by the nearness of a fig tree, which also “likewise draweth away the ranckness of the rue”. It is more likely that rue enjoyed the shelter from the tree.

Rue is native to southern Europe and North Africa, but has also adapted to the cooler climates of northern Europe, Australia and North America. It is the National Herb of Lithuania, and used there as both a courting herb to announce engagements, and by the bridal party. As a representation of all virtues, good health and a long life, the bride and the groom’s attendants wear a sprig of rue. On April 23, the feast day of St. George (patron saint of horses and animals) Lithuanian maidens would plant rue to bring good luck and protection, so that the earth would be fruitful and the grass thick and green. Neighboring Poland, too, has associated rue with marriage and young maidens, and wreaths of rue were exchanged instead of rings in the marriage ceremony.

Many other cultures have legends or traditions associated with rue from ancient times to the present. It is a favored herb of Arabic nations, as it was thought to be blessed by Mohammed. Fatally ill, Mohammed was cured by gypsies who used rue as an antidote when all else had failed. As rue was thought of as the herb of repentance, the October 31 Celtic festival of Samhain included rue in the casting out of the old year and welcoming in the new. It was also one of the funeral herbs used by the Druids – again, the theme of repentance and saying goodbye to the old and starting on a new path are all associated with this herb. The Mayans cleanse a house of envy by using rue. Each household member must place a sprig of rue under the tongue, and an infusion of rue, basil, and marigold is sprinkled about the house to ensure the home will be light and peaceful.

In 18th and 19th century Italy, amulets called cimaruta were crafted of tin or silver to resemble the tops of rue. It was carried to protect the wearer from the Evil Eye. In more ancient times, arrows dipped in a solution of rue were supposed to always find their mark. This may have led to its later use where ammunition was boiled in rue water for the same purpose. There is a legend that Mercury gave the herb to Ulysses to destroy the spell that Circe held over him, which allowed him to break free of her charms. Rue’s strong incense-like smell, as well as its reputation as an herb of purification, may be the basis for its branches being used to sprinkle holy water in churches. Rue had its darker side, too, since if one desired to curse someone, all that was necessary was to throw some rue at their feet, causing them to “rue the day”.

Medicinally, rue has been used through the ages for many ailments, as it is highly antiseptic and insecticidal. It was purported to be useful for eyesight, and many painters, jewelers, and engravers were users of this herb to strengthen or enhance their vision, the more notable of these being Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Rutin, a component of rue, has been used for strengthening capillaries, so it may very well have deserved its reputation in ocular use. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was used as an antidote for poisons and to ward off pestilence. Nosegays of rue were routinely found in courtrooms to counteract the vermin and germs that prisoners harbored. Rue’s powerful ability as a cure-all also can be connected to several tales of the origin of Four Thieves Vinegar, a concoction of several herbs, including rue, which can be used as a disinfectant. Supposedly, thieves were using this solution so that they could enter houses and rob the dead and dying but not be affected by the plague.

Rue’s use in medicine is not confined to humans. Cattle were treated with the herb, as well as poultry, most likely as a purgative or vermifuge. Caution is advised in the handling of rue, as a blistering of skin (similar to poison ivy) can occur as an allergic reaction or phytol photodermatitis. This most often transpires when plants are wet or in full sun, so avoid brushing against rue particularly during those times. It is advisable that rue be planted where one cannot unintentionally come in contact with it, as well. Pregnant women should not use rue, and all should be aware of its very strong properties.

One of the most famous references to rue occurs in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Ophelia says:

            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.


Shakespeare also references rue in Richard III:


            Here in this place

                        I’ll set a bank of rue,

            Sour herb of grace;

                        Rue, even for ruta, shall shortly be seen,

            In the remembrance of a weeping queen.

 Rue is a very bitter herb, and not used for culinary purposes very much today. It is sometimes employed as a salad herb in Italy, and is a favorite flavoring in Ethiopian cooking. Fresh leaves in small amounts (large amounts can be toxic) are said to impart a flavor reminiscent of bleu cheese. This herb should probably be just enjoyed for its ornamental value and be respected for its herbal applications in history. It will always have a place in my garden, where its lovely color and sturdy habit can be enjoyed, and remind me of its colorful past.


Ancient Herbs                                                                       Marina Heilmeyer

A Brief History of Thyme and Other Herbs                     Miranda Seymour

Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs             Scott Cunningham

A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Year                               Ellen Evert Hopsman

Early American Herb Recipes                                            Alice Cooke Brown

A Garden of Herbs                                                               Eleanor Sinclair Rohde

Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America                       Colonial Dames of America

Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable                             Juliette de Bairacli Levy

Herbal Wisdom                                                                    Roni Jay

Herbs for the EverydayGarden                                         Gertrude B. Foster

Herbs for the Home                                                              Jekka McVicar

Herbs – Leaves of Magic                                                     Carol Riggs

Hildegaard’s Healing Plants                                                            

The Illustrated Herbal Handbook                                      Adelma G. Simmons

A Modern Herbal                                                                 Maude Grieve

Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine                        Sophie Knab

Rainforest Home Remedies                                 Rosita Arvigo

Vytis – The Knight Vol. 86 No. 4

Wedding Herbs for a Happy Household                          Adelma G. Simmons