Rue has a long history in Europe where it was used as a strewing herb, an anti-plague herb, a natural insecticide and to sprinkle holy water before high mass, which is where it received its common name “Herb of Grace”. It was also used as an ingredient in herb wine during the Middle Ages and is still used in Spain and southern Italy to give aroma to brandy. Rue is mentioned in several writings from the New Testament to the works of Shakespeare and was even the basis for the suit of clubs in a deck of playing cards.
Native to the Mediterranean and Western Asia, the name Ruta is from the Greek reuo, “to save or set free”, and the species name comes from the Latin gravis, “heavy” and olens “smell”. Rue has strong smelling somewhat unpleasant scent, delicately cut blue-grey-green foliage with an open, airy, rounded habit and clusters of yellow scoop-like flowers in midsummer, followed by decorative seed capsules. Hardy to zone 4, Rue grows well in poor soil and loves rocky, dry conditions in a sunny location. A hard pruning in the spring will encourage new growth and keep it a compact 18-24 inches. Rue is a good companion plant of roses and raspberries because it helps to deter Japanese beetles and its leaves are eaten by the black swallowtail caterpillar and therefore Rue is a good candidate for the butterfly garden.
Rue does have a culinary use if used sparingly. It is a traditional flavoring used in Greece and other Mediterranean countries as well as in Jewish ceremonies, but it should be used with caution since it can cause irritation like poison ivy. Rue has also been used in the past in medicine and to reduce inflammation from snakebites, insect bites, strains and sprains, but should be used today only under strict medical supervision and never when pregnant. However, a combination of garlic, rosemary and rue infused in olive oil work together at killing ear mites in dogs and cats. Since Rue is seldom used in cooking and the medicinal use should be approached with caution, the primary uses for this plant are decorative. The seed heads are particularly attractive and may be used in dried flower arrangements and wreaths. The leaves can also be used fresh in nosegays or dried as a moth repellant and the roots yield a reddish dye.
Be cautious, the moist Rue foliage is an irritant to some,
especially in the heat of summer,
and handling it may cause an allergic reaction