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Gardening 101: Rue, Herb of Grace

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Gardening 101: Rue, Herb of Grace

March 22, 2018

Rue, Ruta graveolens: “Herb of Grace”

Rue is considered an old-fashioned herb; however, it is rarely grown in the garden anymore. Could the reason be that graveolens is Latin for “having a strong or offensive smell?” (Current studies report that rue can be toxic if ingested.)

Putting that aside, rue is a fascinating herb because of its long history in the medicinal world. And even though a plant loses mass appeal doesn’t mean it loses a place in the garden. Rue can be a gardener’s helper because its smell repels Japanese beetles (and may keep pets from trampling your herb garden, as well).

Please continue reading to learn more about this interesting herb.

Photograph by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr.

Native to Europe, rue is a bushy evergreen shrub bearing small yellow flowers which, like the foliage, emit an off-putting odor. For centuries, harvested rue was thought to cure countless conditions: insect bites, eye strain, even warding off the plague. Those who cooked used rue for marinades and sauces, and to make green dye. The ancient Romans used the seeds of the perennial in their cooking. Rue also had a place in Catholic rituals, so it’s known as the “herb of grace” and “herb of repentance.” Both Michelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci reportedly used rue to improve their eyesight and creativity.

Rue intermingles with Bulbine frutescens at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Photograph by Cultivar4\13 via Flickr.
Above: Rue intermingles with Bulbine frutescens at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Photograph by Cultivar413 via Flickr.

Today rue is grown ornamentally or for use in dried flower arrangements. If you grow this herb, wear rubber gloves, long sleeves, and pants when harvesting or pruning to avoid irritating the skin with the sap (contact with its leaf oils can cause burning, blistering, and itching).

Nowadays we know that rue can be toxic when eaten in large quantities and too much can produce severe stomach cramping, so don’t try to cook with it.

Photograph by Andrey Zharkikh via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Andrey Zharkikh via Flickr.

Rue growing in the garden can be a gardener’s helper. Its unpleasant smell repels many creatures, including Japanese beetles, and even dogs and cats, making this herb an excellent companion plant. Also, its semi-woody growth can be pruned into nontraditional hedges around herb and rose gardens.

Ruta graveolens. Photograph by Free Use Photos via Flickr.
Above: Ruta graveolens. Photograph by Free Use Photos via Flickr.

Cheat Sheet

  • Rue has greenish-yellow flowers with frilly edges, which attract butterflies from June to September.
  • Plant rue as a companion plant to repel insects. Rue is especially helpful grown near roses and raspberries. The dried, strong-smelling leaves also make an effective moth repellent.  Simply cut a handful of leaves, dry them, then put them in sachets and place where you need to repel bugs.
  • Rue makes a great cut flower so incorporate a few into a cutting garden.

Keep It Alive

  • Rue is not picky but thrives in a dry, well-draining, sunny situation.
  • Normally grows two to three feet tall.
  • Rue is drought-tolerant, so try planting it in troubled, neglected areas in your garden.

If you’re planning a spring herb garden and seek design and layout tips, see Everything You Need to Know About Herb Gardens. And see our Garden Design 101 guides to learn how to grow and care for more of our favorite herbs:

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