The blue-green fronds of rue were admired for their beauty in the Middle Ages, and the intensely aromatic leaves were prized as a condiment, a medicament, and an amulet. Photograph by Carly Still
Here is a shadowed grove which takes its color
From the miniature forest of glaucous rue.
Through its small leaves and short umbels which rise
Like clusters of spears it sends the wind’s breath
And the sun’s rays down to its roots below.
Touch it but gently and it yields a heavy
Fragrance. Many a healing power it has —
Especially, they say, to combat
Hidden toxin and to expel from the bowels
The invading forces of noxious poison.
—Hortulus, Walahfrid Strabo, translated by Raef Payne
Common rue (Ruta graveolens) is a small, shrubby, evergreen herb with attractive, strong-smelling foliage. Native to Southern Europe, rue was introduced into England and Northern Europe by the Romans, and is now widely cultivated throughout the world. Gravis, the Latin adjective Walahfrid uses to describe the pungent smell of the herb, informs the modern botanical epithet “graveolens,” or heavy-scented. This term is used to designate other strongly aromatic plants like celery (Apium graveolens) and dill (Anethum graveolens). Those two members of the carrot family have more appetizing aromas than the very strong and somewhat rank-smelling rue, which is in the citrus family. Rutin, the bitter principle present in rue, is also found in orange peel. Despite its bitter taste and heavy odor, rue was a frequently used condiment in ancient Roman cookery; Apicius includes it in a gravy for braised hare, a sauce for fried fish, and another sauce suitable for flamingo or parrot. Like the equally bitter tansy (see last week’s post) rue was used as a condiment in medieval cooking, but is not much used as a flavoring agent today. (For more on rue as a seasoning, see Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.)
The proverbial bitterness of rue was regarded as an indication of its potency. Jerry Stannard, an authority on ancient and medieval medicinal botany, notes that the sharper and more pungent an herb, the greater the apparent faith in its efficacy, an aspect of ancient pharmacology that may have been grounded in folk belief. The Roman natural historian Pliny regarded rue as one of the chief medicinal herbs. It is present in all three of the Carolingian sources that are the foundation of our medieval plant list: it is praised by Walahfrid Strabo in the Hortulus; it is among the useful plants specified in the Capitulare de Villis, and it appears in the infirmary garden drawn on the St. Gall Plan. (To see this important document, and zoom in on the monastic complex and gardens laid out on the plan, see the comprehensive website www.stgallplan.org.)
Pliny and Dioscorides attribute many medicinal virtues to rue as a “simple” (i.e., a healing herb used alone), but it was also an ingredient in many compound medicines, as were other aromatic condiments. Medieval authorities upheld rue’s ancient reputation as a warming herb; the Tacuinum Sanitatis, or Tables of Health, classes rue as warm and dry in the third degree. In Physica, Hildegard of Bingen treats rue both as a simple and as an effective ingredient in more than a dozen compound recipes. She considered the raw leaves to be more beneficial than those chopped and cooked in food.
The healing properties attributed to rue in antiquity and the Middle Ages are too numerous to list. A celebrated sharpener and preserver of eyesight, it was most famous as a universal antidote to poison, whether of animal, vegetable, or mineral origin. Rue’s reputation as a prophylactic against poison goes back to Hippocrates and was upheld throughout the Renaissance. It is one of the many ingredients included in the famous mithridatum employed by Mithridates VI, ruler of Pontus, to protect himself against his enemies. (Rue is itself toxic taken internally in large doses; as noted by ancient herbalists, it also causes phytodermatitis in sensitive individuals. It is best to avoid contact with rue in strong sun or warm and humid weather.)
Rue was employed against infection and especially against plague, but also had a great reputation as a supernatural protection against evil. It is one of the herbs cited by Stannard as a “magic-bearing” plant—an ordinary plant commonly used as a condiment, a foodstuff, or a simple that could be transformed into a powerful amulet when ritually collected or invoked.
In addition to rue’s many practical virtues, its beautiful, blue-gray–green leaves, described as “glaucous” by modern botanists, were admired in the Middle Ages as they are today. Piero de Crescenzi, writing on the planting of small pleasure gardens in the fourteenth century, gives special attention to rue, repeating the advice first given by Albertus Magnus word for word:
Behind the turf there should be a great number and variety of medicinal and aromatic herbs, since they not only delight by their odor, but their flowers also refresh the sense of sight by their variety. Disperse rue among them in many places, because of its beautiful green color and because its bitterness drives poisonous animals from the garden.
—Book VIII, Chapter 1:3: “On small gardens of herbs.” Piero de Crescenzi, Liber ruralium commodorum (1305–09). (See Catena, the Bard Graduate Center’s Digital Archive of Historic Gardens and Landscapes, for text and translation by Johanna Bauman.)
A number of cultivated forms of are prized as ornamental plants in modern herb and perennial gardens, including the dwarf form ‘Blue Mound,’ ‘Jackson’s Blue,’ a compact and very blue variety, and ‘Variegata,’ which has especially delicate leaves edged with a creamy white. Rue is only semi-evergreen in our climate. Planting in a warm, dry situation will help it to come through the winter, and it can be cut back hard to encourage a new flush of foliage in the spring.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Hildegard, and Priscilla Throop. Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts, 1998.
Stannard, Jerry. Herbs and Herbalism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Eds. Katherine Stannard and Richard Kay. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.
Tags: Anethum graveolens, Apicius, Apium graveolens, bitter, Capitulare de Villis, Dioscorides, Hildegard of Bingen, Hortulus, Mithridates VI, mithridatum, phytodermatitis, Pliny, rue, Ruta graveolens, St. Gall, Tacuinum Sanitatis, Walahfrid Strabo