We really try to avoid trite words and phrases like "unique," "adds visual interest," "shockingly aromatic," and "spectacular" when we're describing the varieties we offer because all our plants are visually appealing, stunning, precious little snowflakes.
When it comes to growing rue from seed, however, "uniquely spectacular" is absolutely appropriate when describing its unusual yellow flowers, and its leaf pattern and soft, blue-gray color definitely stands out in the garden.
As for it being "shockingly aromatic," well, if you lean in close and take a whiff, we'd love for you to give us a shout and tell us what you think. The Seed Needs family has a betting chart of different adjective combinations, and there's serious money riding on the winner.
Rue's Cultural History
Ruta graveolens is an herbaceous perennial native to the Balkan peninsula and southeastern Europe. It earned its name from the Greek word for "to set free" (reuo) in reference to the herb's reputation for countering dark magic and curing illnesses. In fact, rue remained a chief ingredient in so-called magic potions and as an important staple in witchcraft lore as its popularity spread through Europe during the Middle Ages.
Graveolens is Latin for "strong smell". Apparently, ancient Greeks didn't have a word for "teenager's gym socks."
Etymology, like plants and critters, is subject to convergent evolution. Shakespeare coined the phrase "rue the day," to describe bitter regret. Rue is, indeed, a bitter herb, but the Bard was thought to have been inspired by hreowan, the Old English word for "to make sorry."
William Turner, known as the "Father of Botany," included rue in his famous text, Herbal, in 1562. Given that rue has a bitter taste and obnoxious aroma, Shakespeare (1564-1616) may well have been referring to the plant.
Catholic priests once used sprigs of rue to sprinkle holy water during blessings, which is how rue earned the nickname "Herb of Grace," or even "Herb of Repentance and Regret."
Mithridates VI, also known as the "Poison King" of Pontus, was famous for developing a mysterious antidote to fend off assassination attempts by his many political enemies. Rue was believed to be a primary ingredient in this concoction, though rue itself can be poisonous when taken in concentrated doses.
In spite of this, rue was widely used by Renaissance painters to protect their vision from eye strain, and today, it's still promoted by herbalists for eye health.
Contemporary and Traditional Herbal Use
We usually add disclaimers at the end of this section, but given that rue can be highly toxic, we're not going to bury the lead. We don't recommend Ruta graveolens as a natural remedy for anyone but the most experienced herbalist. Essential oil of rue is widely available, but that doesn't mean it's safe or wise to use when there are similarly-effective but safer alternatives in the herbalist's toolkit. Pregnant or nursing women should avoid this stuff like the plague.
Got it? Ok. Now that you know the risks, here are the purported benefits of rue as an herbal remedy:
- Improves and preserves vision
- Digestive aid
- Nervous sedative
- Flea and mosquito repellent
Rue is the source of rutin, which has been used in contemporary medicine to improve capillary health.
Sachets of dried rue leaves and flowers, or powders made from the same, have been used to repel pests from home interiors and exteriors for ages.
As always, we recommend you seek the advice of your physician before using rue concentrates or large quantities of the fresh or dried plant for healing purposes. And perhaps pay a visit to a psychiatrist, too. While we think you might be crazy for using rue as a concentrated medicinal herb, you'd be just as nuts to skip it as an ornamental, because Ruta graveolens is a gorgeous garden plant.
Since its odor and taste are repellent to kids and animals, you should consider it safe to grow in your garden if your children are beyond the "stuff-roly-polys-up-their-nostrils" phase. In fact, gardeners often crush rue leaves in vinegar and spray around their yard to deter cats, dogs, deer, rodents, gophers, and rabbits.
Further empirical studies are required to determine whether or not it repels door-to-door salespeople and missionaries.
Rue: An Outstanding Ornamental
Rue is a hardy and drought tolerant herbaceous perennial, making it a great choice for non-irrigated gardens and xeriscapes in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8. Its leaves and form have been described as "lush," "graceful," and "fern-like," contradicting the plant's hardiness and love for rocky, poor soils and harsh, hot, direct sun.
Growth Habits: Rue is a compact, shrub-like herb, growing up to three feet tall and 24" wide, though most often it's half that size, in a more mounded shape.
Flowers: In late spring through early fall, Ruta graveolens blooms in small, clustered yellow flowers. The first flower to open usually has 10 stamens, and those that follow only bear eight. Rue's blossoms are ruffle-y at the edges with a bright green center cone.
Foliage and Fragrance: In spite of its charming flowers, rue is most valued by gardeners for its delicate, bluish-green, deeply-lobed, alternate leaves, which can be either bi- or tripinnate. Each leaf segment is dotted with tiny glands, which excrete the plant's natural oils. These have an unpleasant, repellant aroma. ("Moldy socks" is ahead by a nose, closely followed by "cat puke.")
We should note that some garden sites describe rue's fragrance as pleasant. It's possible that growing conditions can affect the plant's aroma; it's also possible that some noses (and seed dealers) are influenced by the scent of money. Some folks will circle around so they can drive by a road-killed skunk two or three more times, with all the car windows rolled down.
Some things are subjective, but the overwhelming consensus is that rue plants, when bruised, freakin' stink.
Pests: Rue is resistant to most diseases and pests, though swallowtail butterfly caterpillars love to munch on it. Given that it prefers soil on the dry side, rue is inclined to get root rot if it's overwatered.
Companion Plants: Rue helps to deter Japanese beetles. It's a great companion plant for strawberries, cane berries, figs, and roses. Don't plant rue near members of the mint family, basil, sage, or cabbage.
Site Selection: Rue does best in sunny, hot locations, but it will tolerate partial shade. Plant it outside of your irrigated zones, preferably in well-draining, medium-quality soil. You'll want to water rue deeply and intermittently and keep its woody stem free from mulch.
Growing Rue from Seed
Rue propagates from cuttings, but it's also very easily grown from seed.
When to Plant: For an indoor head start, plant your rue seeds under lights or in a sunny window 3 to 4 weeks before the last spring frost. Direct-sow or transplant seedlings outside after all threat of frost has passed. Established rue is frost-tolerant.
Soil Preparation: Rue's happy in light, medium, or even heavy soils as long as it's well-draining. It's been known to grow in craggy rocks, gravel, and ruined buildings.
Spoil it a bit, though, for best results: break up compacted soil with aged compost and a bit of sand. While rue isn't a heavy feeder, the nutrients from the compost or an all-purpose fertilizer will help it get off to a good start. Rue does best with a pH of 6.5 to 8.5.
Planting Depth: Scatter rue seeds on the soil's surface, and leave them uncovered; rue requires sunlight to germinate.
Plant Spacing: Space rue seeds or transplants every 12" to 16", or plant in 16-inch pots.
Germination: 68°F tends to be the sweet spot for triggering germination, which usually occurs in 7 to 21 days. Keep seeds moist until they germinate, and keep the seedlings and transplants moist until they've had a chance to grow roots; bottom watering (containers) or intermittent drip (in-ground) irrigation is best.
Maintenance: In spite of our comments about rue being a precious snowflake, it's actually a low-maintenance plant. Prune it back to just above its woody base in early spring, or in fall after flowering is complete. Since rue will reseed itself, you might want to deadhead spent blooms. In the colder zones in rue's range, mulch over the trimmed bases to protect the plant from freezing in the winter.
Precautions: When trimming rue, or when you expect to handle its leaves or stems, be sure to wear rubberized garden gloves; rue oils are an irritant and cause photodermatitis—rashes or blisters similar to poison oak or poison ivy.
We recommend that you plan your rue-related chores for early mornings, late evenings, or cool, overcast days when the plant's oils are less likely to be an issue, and you're less prone to immolation.
Harvesting: Suspend sprigs of rue (with or without flowers) upside-down and dry in a warm, dark, breezy spot. Store dried rue in an airtight container in a dark, cool cabinet. Don't grind or powder rue until you're ready to use it.
Cooking with Rue: Are You Feeling Lucky?
Rue has somewhat fallen out of fashion in the culinary world, possibly because there are so many other herbs that perform well in bitter-tasting plants' role in balancing flavors. And without the risks associated with improper preparation. We had a tough time finding recipes worth sharing, but we do have a few insights into how it's used... Or not used.
Rue is a standard in many Ethiopian recipes (possibly because other bitters, like parsley, don't do so well there) and still lurks around in the spice cabinets of Italian chefs, a reminder that it was once a staple in ancient Roman cooking traditions.
"Rue is as bitter as anything I've ever tasted, and it is hard to suggest an alternative. Besides adding anti nail-biting polish to your Roman masterpiece, you might consider dandelion leaves."
Daring diners (not you, pregnant ladies!) might add a few tiny portions of rue to salads, and if it's simmered in water for a minute or two, you can remove the leaves and use the liquid to flavor soups and sauces. Cook's Info recommends ditching the rue and replacing it with chicory, endive, dandelion or sorrel, and substituting fenugreek seed for cooked dishes. Rue is often used with acidic foods or pickling recipes, which tend to undermine rue's bitterness.
Hedge Your Bets: Shop with Seed Needs
We hope we haven't scared you away from growing rue from seed in your garden! Its ornamental benefits outweigh the easily avoidable risks.
One risk you don't want to take is wasting your time and garden space with outdated, poor-quality seeds. Our non-GMO, open-pollinated seed stock is refreshed on an as-needed basis, and carefully hand-packaged and stored in a climate-controlled facility.
Does that sound like we're a huge seed distribution company? We're not! Seed Needs is a family business, and we're just as dedicated to your health and gardening success as we are to our own. Which is why we always want to give you the straight dirt on our products, so you can make informed decisions about your selected plant varieties.We'd love to hear from you if you'd like to share an old family recipe featuring rue, or heck...we'd just love for you to drop us a line if you have any feedback about our blog or our products. We're always open to requests, both for topics and for varieties!