A popular condiment, an antidote to poisons, and a caterpillar repellent, rue truly seems to do it all. Here’s a description of a surprisingly dangerous herb that has since fallen out of popularity, but was very much in vogue in ancient Rome.
A photo of a rue bush. Fully mature plants can grow up to three feet tall and three feet wide.
For modern palates, an herb that tastes like nail polish would seem to have no place on the dining table. Be that as it may, the Romans employed it for all sorts of purposes, even classifying it as a vegetable. This herb, called rue (Ruta graveolens), is native to the Balkans but is found across much of southern Europe.
It’s particularly fit for its original habitat, growing well in crags and brushland and tolerating conditions of high heat and minimal shade. Rue also flourishes with little water, an ability that is aided by the plant’s waxy, moisture-retentive, greenish-blue leaves. Out of the shrubby clusters of foliage emerge delicate yellow flowers, as seen in the picture above.
Personally, I think rue looks quite nice. Some ancient people along the line must have, too, because rue was commonly used as a garnish for meat dishes, as well as an ingredient in its own right. In his Epigrams, Martial writes about adding rue to tuna, and Apicius describes its use in recipes for boar, venison, and lamb, among others.
Rue’s leaves were also pickled, used as a bouquet garni in soups and stews, and mixed into salads. The herb was also listed as an ingredient for moretum, the salad spread Virgil and Columella were so fond of. Importantly, many classical recipes and authors emphasized using rue in moderation. As referenced at the beginning of this post, rue has an extremely bitter taste. If it was too overpowering, rue could presumably ruin a dish.
Rue tastes bitter, but it can also cause some nasty side effects. This plant is surprisingly dangerous — touching the leaves and, thus, the plant’s oils can cause blistering, which is worsened when the skin comes in contact with sunlight. Also, rue should be avoided by pregnant women as compounds in the plant act as a potent (and possibly unwanted) abortifacient. This quality was something ancient physicians made use of, in addition to employing rue to fix countless other pains around the body.
I’ve found the Romans liked to prescribe a single plant to combat loads of unrelated ailments. Silphium, for example, was said to fix afflictions ranging from indigestion to dog bites and, as it seems, almost everything in between! In this respect, rue is really no different. Pliny the Elder wrote profusely on rue’s practical applications in his work Naturalis historia (Natural History), describing 84 (!) remedies made with the plant. Among these are treatments for asthma, epilepsy, headaches, chest pain, to name only a few.
Besides being a panacea of sorts, it becomes evident that rue is a plant of contradictions — the juice was used as a poison and the leaves as an antidote when steeped in wine. Pliny also described how rue was a sure cure for flatulence and digestive upsets, but people who eat the plant today sometimes report bad stomachaches.
Although by today’s standards its medicinal benefits are doubtful, rue can be dried and hung as an insect repellent. The plant is still occasionally used for this purpose nowadays, particularly to deter the caterpillars Pliny so strongly despised. Rue can also be used to ward off mammalian pests like deer and rabbits and, purportedly, snakes.
Symbolically, rue is associated with regret (potentially something you would feel if you wound up in a thicket of the stuff). This connection between the herb and the emotion is most likely due to homonymy: “rue” is a synonym of “regret,” though the words aren’t related.
Punning literary references to rue appear in several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Richard II and Hamlet, where it’s given the epithet “the herb of grace.” In the latter play, rue was one of the symbolic flowers given out by the mad Ophelia, signifying the regret felt after her father, Polonius, had died.
Because of its unsavory reputation for tasting bitter and making people itch, rue is a tricky herb to get a hold of. There are multiple sites online that sell the seeds, but finding leaves for sale is much harder. Apparently other bitter plants like fenugreek or dandelion greens will do as substitutes, but I’ve chosen to omit rue and rue replacements from my recreated recipes altogether. If you can find some, though, by all means add it as you see fit. But for my purposes, I’ll forgo the bitterness and chemical burns!