I’ve always thought of rue (Ruta) as an herb symbolizing regret, sorrow and repentence. Not a cheering plant. But in a recent conversation with a curandera friend in New Mexico, I learned that rue is also regularly used among healers for protection and banishing (she recommends bathing with rue in salt water to get the full effect). Indeed, it has a long history as a protector.
The rue in my garden seems indestructible. It has a very strange fragrance, which I like but others can’t stand. Apparently, glands distributed over the entire plant contain a volatile oil that accounts for the unusual smell and bitter taste. The oil can cause some people’s skin to break out in small blisters. (This if you handle it too hard or rub it on yourself. Floating a sprig or two in bath water should not have this effect!)
In the 1st century B.C., King Mithridates of Asia Minor ate rue to immunize himself against poison, taking the herb in gradual doses. Poor, silly man. He tried to commit suicide by taking poison, but naturally his scheme backfired, so finally he ordered a slave to stab him to death.
Aristotle said rue eased nervous indigestion caused when eating in the presence of foreigners. The Greeks believed rue was an anti-magical herb, that could also stimulate the nervous and uterine systems.
The Roman Pliny said carvers, painters and engravers should ingest rue to improve their eyesight.
In the Middle Ages, rue was again considered a defense against witches, and it was used to ward off the plague. In the 16th and 17th centuries, judges carried rue to guard against “jail fever” (the illnesses prisoners contracted from one another that could spread through a courtroom). Look closely at the plant and you’ll see why rue was even an early model for the suit of clubs on playing cards.
To treat epilepsy, a bouquet of rue was hung around the neck of the sufferer. Seventeeth-century herbalist Nicolas Culpeper wrote that “the juice thereof warmed in a pomegranate shell or rind, and dropped into the ears, helps the pains of them. The juice of it and fennel, with a little honey, and the gall of a cock put thereunto helps the dimness of the eyesight.” (From his mouth to Pliny’s ears, or would that be the other way around?)
Rue has been used externally to treat insect bites, gout, rheumatism and sciatica and internally to treat nervous heart problems, hysteria, worms, gas pains and colic. Women took rue to correct irregular menstruation, ease the symptoms of menopause and induce abortion.
Large doses can be toxic and cause stomach pains, vomiting, confusion and other undesirable side effects. Overexposure to sun after ingesting rue can result in severe sunburn.
As for sorrow and repentence, let us never forget sad, mad Ophelia handing branches of rue to Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me;/ we may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays./ O, you must wear your rue with a difference.”*
And Gertrude rued the day….
Rue was called “herb o’ grace” for the grace given by God for the repentence of sins. Brushes were made of the plant for sprinkling holy water before the Roman Catholic mass.