Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rue - Herb of the Week

Ever heard of a March hare?  It is especially unlucky to meet a hare when setting out on a journey. Hares acting oddly might be shape-shifters or "were-hares." These dangerous hares can only be dispatched by a silver bullet, or a bullet dipped in rue or rowan tea.

So I chose Rue as Herb of the week

The word “rue” means “to regret,” and the herb of the same name is associated with regret, sadness and bitterness in biblical writings and literature. Rue (Ruta graveolens) is a bitter herb native to the Mediterranean and Southern Europe. The genus and common names come from the Greek word "reuo" meaning to set free.  Historically it was known for breaking the spell of witches.

It has several religious uses including being used to spreinke holy water which gives it the name "herb of Grace" in some circles.

A member of the citrus family, it is an evergreen perennial with bluish-green leaves that grow in groups of six or seven off the semi-woody branches. The mature plant reaches about 2 1/2 feet tall. The leaves smell bitter and medicinal when cut or crushed. Rue produces many small four-pedaled flowers in mid- to late-summer. The foliage has an almost lacy look to it, although the leaf sections are not thin and pointy but rounded.

Rue is a dangerous herb that can cause powerful cramps, hallucinations and twitching.  Even a small amount of contact will cause photo toxiicity (an ultra sensitivity to the sun) leading to severe burns and blisters.  

To Grow

Rue is easy to grow. The tiny seeds, if strewn onto a garden plot or a container of potting soil and covered with a light sprinkling of soil and moistened, will sprout in a week or so. Tiny light green seedlings look delicate, but are sturdy and will grow quickly into a foot-tall plant. Pinching the tops will make them grow bushier. Rue will grow well outdoors in poor or rich soil, with little attention. Inside as a houseplant, rue needs regular watering and bright light to grow well. 

They have an attractive and showy flower that contracts well with blue or purple flowers on surrounding plants.  From late spring to fall  rue bears clusters of bright yellow 5-petal 1/2 diameter flowers with a dimpled green center.  It dies not have an attractive smell, however.  The flowers will turn into hard green seed-heads that dry into brown husks and open to reveal and drop many tiny black seeds.

There is a myth that Rue will thrive if you steal it from a neighbor.  If you decide to grow it by division, you will need to wear gloves, as many people have a reaction to the herbs essential oils.

To Use

Rue is considered poisonous and should be used at your own risk.  The volatile oils in the plant leaves can cause various reactions in different individuals, so although it has some historic uses I list here, I am not use you should try any of them at home.

Historically it was believed to restore eye sight and sprigs were soaked in water or made into a tea then used as eye drops, rue water refreshes red, dry eyes and irritated eyes. It was used in ancient times as an antidote for poisons and for protection from evil. In Italy, it was used to make the alcoholic drink grappa all ruta. It can be simmered in coffee as they do in Ethiopia to add a lemony flavor. Small snippets of fresh rue can be added to meat and egg dishes during cooking. Dried rue repels insects such as fleas and lice and is good to tuck into pet bedding.

This herb provides a sharp, spicy, and mildly bitter flavor and is used in some sausage meats served in the Middle East, such as merguez. In times past, Rue was believed to have many medicinal qualities due to the alkaloids, flavonoids and the volatile oil it contained. However, medical experts now believe that there are too many risks with the use of this herb and thus urge caution when consuming it, especially in large quantities. It is considered to be a poisonous plant.

This post was updated in Janaury 2017 with new photos and information.

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