Ruta graveolens, Rue (Rutaceae: Citrus Family)
Rue is a herb I have been growing on and off for more then thirty years. I like the connection it has with classical antiquity and the time of the Roman Empire. What other plant can you grow which was recommended by the writer Pliny, AD 23-79, to improve the eyesight of artists, engravers and woodcarvers or to protect people against the bites of serpents, toadstool poisoning and the "evil eye".
At this time of year the foliage of Rue take on a steely blue colour and the irregularly cleft leaves with their 4 or 5 spoon shaped segments cast themselves downward as if anticipating a snow flurry. In summer this sub-shrub opens up with 30 cm tall stems topped with small glistening yellow flowers which have wide spread cupped petals with delicate fringes on their edges. A conspicuous green ovary projects one small white pistil from its centre, while the surrounding stamens bend over individually to dust their pollen onto its sticky surface without the benefit of insect intervention. Perhaps this adaptation is the result of it naturally occurring in dry inhospitable limestone screes of southern France and Spain where pollinators may be few and far between.
Native habitat: "Karst" landscape near Minerve, France
It is in summer that Rue is at its most potent and allergic reactions may occur for those with sensitive skin who brush against the plant. For those with a tougher constitution, it is interesting to see how its sap is able to "tattoo" the skin especially if the sun happens to be out at the same time. (Don't try this at home kids) Perhaps this "magic" from a plant accounted for it being a powerful protection against, and incantation by witches: "Then sprinkled she the juice of Rue. With nine drops of morning dew"
However it also had a special religious significance and as a symbol of regret and repentance, it became known as Herb of Grace and bunches were used to sprinkle holy water before High Mass. Bunches were also carried in Law and Criminal Courts to protect judges against goal fever. (These days the word rue is more likely to be heard in the divorce courts as in "I rue the day I meet him/her that b****")
Today Rue is less used in either medicinal or culinary ways. It is banned in France but in Italy the leaves are used to flavour grappa della ruta, a form of brandy and also make their way into salad mixes as the Italians are fond of their bitter greens. In China, where it is known as chou-cao it is cooked with green beans.
In autumn I collect the seed which is contained in hard glandular capsules at the end of the stems.The capsules spit open to reveal numerous black seeds which germinate after a few weeks. The mini forest of tiny rue plants in the pot pictured below are quite happy to stay in that condition for some time before being pricked out and given a new home.
The smell of crushed rue leaves may not be to all tastes. I think the best description is given by Margaret Brownlow in her book Herbs and the Fragrant Garden (1957 DLT London) where she described it as being like musty churches, Gorgonzola cheese and Aden.
(Aden in south Yemen was a British Colony from 1936 to 1967)