( Originally Published 1933 )
Rue is one of the bitter herbs, and comes from southern Europe. It is a pretty plant with its grayish-green, much cut leaves and yellow-green flowers, and is in the garden because of sentiment, not for any present-day use. The whole plant has a dry, acrid, strong scent, as of a stinging thing. When I get only a faint whiff of it, it reminds me of old ladies in the nineties of my childhood or of old druggists' shops, but if I get too much of it, it nauseates me, but that is probably entirely and peculiarly personal, for many like it exceedingly.
Root. There is a thick main root from which fibers grow out.
Stem. Several stems grow out from where the root rises from the ground. They grow up to two feet and are round and covered with a bloom which comes off as one touches them.
Leaf. The leaves are covered with a bloom, not hairy, and give off the characteristic scent when touched. They are compounded into about nine leaflets, each of which is again divided into deeply cut segments rounded at the tips. The longest are five inches long and they grow shorter as they ascend the stem. Some of them are shaped like a druggist's spatula. Their taste is very bitter.
Flower. The flowers are in short, few-flowered, flat-topped, terminal clusters and open early in June for me and continue for a long time. Four light yellow green pointed sepals subtend the greenish-yellow corolla about half an inch across, having four petals which curl up all around the edges, so much so as to form a hood at the tips. The stamens stand out stiffly and are dark green. The conical ovary is made up of four united sections from the center of which rises the tiny green pistil.
Seed. The seeds are black, crescent-shaped, and keep their germinating power for two years.
Variety. There is a variegated form in which the leaves are splashed with white.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
The Greeks and Romans thought if rue were stolen from a neighbor's garden it would thrive better than if raised at home. Rue is said to have been the antidote Mercury gave to Ulysses to preserve him from the effects of Circe's enchanted beverage, and Parkinson says that King Mithridates of Pontus, to offset the effects of possible poisoning, began every day by eating a concoction made up of twenty leaves of rue, a little salt, a couple of walnuts, and a couple of figs beaten together in a mass. My comment to this is that the king must have loved life very much.
Rue is mentioned in the Bible. Because of its penetrating odor it was considered a prophylactic, and it was the custom to place a bunch of rue upon the bar of the central Criminal Court in England to preserve the judges from being infected with gaol fever from the prisoners brought before them from Newgate Prison. Shakespeare says :
Reverend Sirs : For you there's rosemary and rue; these keep Seeming and savour, all winter long. Grace and remembrance be to you both.
Ibn Baithar, amongst other virtues attributed to rue, says if it is rubbed on bald spots it will restore the hair. Josselyn mentioned rue, and it is in Bartram's catalogue of 1807, and in Stearns' "The American Herbal" of 1801. It was grown in peasant gardens to be used as a preservative against the plague, and was an ingredient in the vinegar of the four thieves.
Perfume. Rue oil is obtained by distilling the leafy portions, and enters into sweet-pea attars to which it gives a characteristic aroma, and in the manufacture of aromatic, toilet, hygienic, and cosmetic vinegars.
Food. Boulestin and Hill say the chopped leaves with brown bread make good sandwiches, and that rue is a powerful stimulant for a failing appetite, but that the leaves should be used sparingly, for they are biting, which only goes to show how differently people respond to tastes and smells. Bois says if too many leaves are eaten they are poisonous. The Italians and Greeks, however, season their food with it and eat it in salads.
Plants of rue can be bought in nurseries in the United States. It comes readily from seed, which, when sown out-of-doors, germinated fairly quickly for me, but the plants did not flower the first summer. I read it can be propagated from cuttings. Rue is a husky, hardy plant and although it dies down considerably in the winter, it comes up quite perkily again in the spring. It seems to like a well-drained, rather moist situation, but will grow in any good garden soil.