I couldn’t resist a pun about this unsung hero of Â an herb plant. Though it takes a back seat to more modern choices of culinary herbs. Yet myÂ thoughts are quite serious, because Ruta graveolens Â -better known simply as Rue,Â is a very attractive, easy to grow, andÂ useful plant for gardens.
Once used as a culinary herb, but no longer since it hasÂ toxic effects when consumed in large amounts. And the extremely bitter taste is not pleasing to the modern palate.
Ruta comes from a Greek word meaning “to set free”, although purportedly due to its cure of disease, I bet it has more to do with the magical powers that people attributed to it. In the Latin name, â€œgraveolensâ€ refers to itsÂ heavy-scented properties. This Latin modifierÂ is also attached to the herb Dill.
The Roman’s brought it to England, and it was reputed to have all sorts of uses. In Medieval times it was believed to have healing powers. Rue’sÂ flavor is bitter, and theÂ strong smell along with a bitter taste convinced many of its medicinal powers. It used to be considered a miracle drug and was used for lung ailments and for epilepsy. No longer considered as medicine, Â (remember: it can be toxic in large doses).
However,Â this “herb of grace” is still a member in good standing of herb gardens. While once enjoyed in ancient and Middle Age cuisine, modern palates no longer have a taste for it. They ate it in salads, egg dishes and to flavor wines and liqueurs.
AppearanceÂ of Ruta Graveolens
Grown foremost for its pretty, lace-edged finger leaves which are “glabrous” Â (effectively blue in color). This ancient herb has powers to enhance your garden. Â The official term for the leaf shape is “obovate, glandular-punctate”. That is a mouthful!
The sharp yellow flowers are also a feature which appear in late June to early July. Small flowers grow in aÂ flattened corymb, and the seed head is persistent. I think it might be useful for dried flower arrangements, but I haven’t really tried it that way.
The flower clusters stand up above the foliage and the whole plant has a good presence visually. Individually, the flowers have a rumpled set of five petals surround the prominent pale green center, sprongs ofÂ stamens that make it look a bit alien up close.
Plant Form in the Garden
The bush is softly rounded, but can grow into a small billowy shrub.
Â Designing with “Herb of Grace”
It is a shrubby perennial which makes it perfect for a little hedge. The blooms are chartreuse yellow umbels bringing light into the garden, and it has an ancient history making it useful for time-period garden plans. An herb that should be considered for inclusion in gardens on many counts. It could be used in Bible gardens, Cottage gardens, and Tudor knot garden plans.
I’ve grown it along my front walk, and it takes well to hedging,Â and gets trimmed to shape several times in a season, although that isn’t necessary. I like to keep it similar in size to the lavender, and it does look a little more blowsy and loose without shaping.
Rue is deer resistant.
The color and the interesting leaf, flower, and seedheads makesÂ Rue a plant to consider for more contemporary designs. It has long interest, but will die back in extreme cold (sprouting again from near the ground, so it isn’t lost).
Because it is so easily clipped into shape, it is useful for formal gardens. It was often used in knot gardens, which is a clue to its property of taking hedging well. Fronting a shrubbery and lining a pathway equally well, there are many uses for its pretty foliage and hardy perennial qualities.
I think it has a modern look, especially when in bloom, for all its ancient history. Its one drawback is that it will die back in harsh winter, needing (sometimes) to be cut back quite hard. Still, it has proven to be a survivor when lavender and less hardy plants are lost.
‘Ruta graveolens’ deer resistance is a plus..
It is not evergreen in Zone 5 gardens, and perhaps the fact that it can look a little sad in winter might influence where it is situated.
How to Grow Ruta Graveolens
- Â Hardiness:Â Zone 4 to 8
- Sun: Full sun
- Soil: Like good drainage, but does well in my clay-loam
- Moisture:Â Dry to medium
- Height and Width: 2-3 feet high and wide
- Native to the Balkans, conditions ranging fromÂ mild Mediterranean-type climate in south to aÂ harsher humid continental climate in the northeast.
How to Propagate this Herb
My plants seed themselves around where they are planted. I have also taken cuttings and divisions from the base of “mother” plants. It is very easy to strike new plants.
‘Jackman’s Blue’ is a named variety.
Fun Facts and Old Wives Tales
- Rue-water sprinkled in the house ‘kills all the fleas,’
- Called “Witches Bane” it was believed to repel them and hung in doorways.
- Perhaps how it got the nickname “Herb of Grace” was because it was sometimes used to sprinkle Holy Water.
“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…”
~William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (IV.5)