Rue: The Forgotten Herb

Rue is an ancient herb trying to stay relevant in the modern world. Learn the history and usefulness of this forgotten herb to keep it alive.

| Winter 2013-2014

  • Rue's fragrance is aromatic and bittersweet, and the raw leaves have a very mild numbing effect on the tongue.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • “If a man be anointed with the juice of rue, the poison of wolf's bane, mushrooms, or toadstools, the biting of serpents, stinging of scorpions, spiders, bees, hornets, and wasps will not hurt him.” John Gerard, botanist & herbalist, 1545-1611
    Photo by Jim Long
  • Rue has remained virtually unchanged since ancient times. What you grow in your garden will be a direct descendent of the same plant found in its native Mediterranean and Western Asian habitat.
    Photo by Jim Long

In ancient times, rue was an important culinary and medicinal herb. It’s mentioned in the Bible by its Greek name, “peganon.” Rue was a common cooking herb for the Romans and commonly used in a spicy seasoning paste that contained garlic, hard cheese, coriander, and celery seeds with rue leaves. The botanical, Latin name of “Ruta” comes from Greek, translated as “to set free,” referring to its use as a chief ingredient in mixtures used as antidotes to poisoning. 

Rue was also used as a strewing herb, fresh sprigs of the herb scattered on floors in the belief it would keep away the plague. It was a common herb believed to keep away witches, and that folk use evolved into the Catholic Church’s practice of dipping branches of rue into Holy water and sprinkling it over the heads of parishioners as a blessing, which earned it a common name for the plant of “herb of grace.” 

Rue's Use Today

Rue has fallen out of use in today's cooking primarily because our taste preferences have changed. In the past, the use of an herb that imparted a bitter undertone to a dish, balancing the sweet, sour, salty, and hot flavors was important, but it is less so today.

Occasionally you’ll still find rue used in Italian dishes, mostly among Old Italian families that have passed down recipes through generations of cooks.

It’s most commonly used today in Ethiopia as both a cooking herb and an addition to coffee. I met a woman from Ethiopia last year at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, Calif. Her booth was across the aisle from mine, and she and I started talking herbs and cooking. She inquired whether I grew rue and when I said I did but never use it, she told me how her family used it when she was growing up. She explained that rue, both the leaf and the seed, are an important addition to brewing a pot of traditional Ethiopian coffee. Since I like my coffee straight and black, with no frills, I was dubious. To prove her point, the following day, she brought a thermos of fresh coffee made with rue leaves and seed. It was outstanding, and I am now a devotee of Ethiopian coffee flavored with rue!

Growing Rue

This heirloom herb remains virtually unchanged since ancient times. As far as I know, there has been no hybridizing or even selecting out strains of the plant. What you grow in your garden will be a direct descendent of the same plant found growing in its native habitat of the Mediterranean region and parts of Western Asia. If you want to grow rue in your garden (and I recommend you do so, if for no other reason than that it’s an excellent attractor of butterflies and home for their larvae), then you can start rue from seed or cuttings placed in damp soil.

Rue (Ruta graveolens) is an evergreen herb with delightful bluish-green leaves. It does best in full to part sun, with at least 6 to 7 hours of sunlight per day, and well-drained soil. It will even thrive in extremely dry conditions once established, but you can quickly kill the plant by over-watering. It’s hardy from upper Zone 6 and warmer. There’s no need to fertilize the plant — it’s perfectly happy in very poor soil.



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