Folklore in My Garden: Rue

Ruta graveolens, perennial

“…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.” Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

Rue is one of the most ornamental herbs, with deeply cut, smooth leaves that are rather bluish. The flowers are a bright yellow and blossom from June to September. It is a hardy plant that can be relied upon to self-sow, if it likes the place in which it’s planted. This rue has been growing in my Connecticut garden for 20 years, requiring very little tending. Rue originated in Southern Europe and is one of the “bitter herbs.”

Rue has thousands of years of history in many different cultures. Known as Herb of Grace, Blessed Herb, Herb of Repentance, and herbygrass , it is considered a protective plant, and has long been used in medicine and magic. Early physicians considered rue an excellent protection against plagues and pestilence, and used it to ward off poisons and fleas. The hardy evergreen shrub is mentioned by writers from Pliny to Shakespeare and beyond, as an herb of remembrance, of warding and of healing. It was frequently planted by doorways to bring blessings to and protect against evil, and is one of the ingredients in the legendary Four Thieves Vinegar. Priests would dip rue in holy water to bless people and their homes, and some people carried or wore bunches of the plant to repel witches.
Once believed to improve the eyesight and creativity, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci regularly ate the small, trefoil leaves to increase their own. The legend of rue lives on in playing cards, where the symbol for the suit of clubs is said to be modeled on a leaf of rue.

It is a coincidence that the name of this plant is identical to and English word meaning “regret”. It is derived from the Greek word reuo, to set free, in recognition of its many historic medicinal uses.

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