Rue -The Herb that Saved the Four Thieves!
Also Known As:
Common Rue, Herb of Grace or Herb o'Grace
Southern Europe and Northern Africa
Roadsides and waste areas. Likes well drained soil with pH 7.0. Blooms June through August
Rue has a long and interesting history dating back to ancient times. Its genus name Ruta is thought to originate from the Greek ‘reus’ ,meaning ‘to set free’ stemming from its general effectiveness on disease. The latin adjective ‘graveolens’ means ‘strong smelling’ – and this is certainly true of rue.
In the first century BC, King Mithradates is said to have taken an antidote for poison or infection every morning that consisted of twenty leaves of rue, a little salt, a couple walnuts, and a couple figs beaten together with twenty juniper berries. This concoction worked against him when he unsuccessfully tried to end his life with poison. According to legend he eventually persuaded a slave to stab him.
Pliny, the Roman naturalist, herbalist and writer (AD23-AD79) recorded that carvers, painters, and engravers ingested rue to improve their eyesight. Some historical works state that Leonardo daVinci and Michelangelo also believed that their eyesight and inner vision was improved due to ingesting rue.
The seventeenth century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote that “the juice thereof warmed in a pomegranate shell or rind and dropped into the ears helps the pains of them.” See below for our herbal preparation for earaches.
Rue was also considered valuable to ward off witches and their spells during the Middle Ages as well as a defense against the plague. The Great Plague of 1665 killed as many as 7,000 people every week in the Kingdom of England (now part of the United Kingdom) with an estimated 100,000 people dying of bubonic plaque between the years 1665-1666. During that time, a group of thieves, one of which was an herbalist, concocted a plan to steal the valuables of the deceased that no one dared to be near. They believed that they would be protected by a brew of red wine vinegar containing rue and a long list of other herbs. The concoction became known as the “Vinegar of the Four Thieves.” Rue is sometimes omitted from “Four Thieves” recipes today, but it is well documented that it was in the original recipe. Interestingly, the herbs used in the recipe have well known antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, and antifungal properties – and they worked! The thieves survived, though they were eventually caught.
Rue has a powerful effect on the uterus, and cause the onset of menstruation and uterine contractions. Pliny the Elder cited rue as an arbortifacient (meaning it can cause abortion of pregnancy). Exposure to the sun when skin has had contact with the oils from rue can result in burn-like blisters. Some people are especially sensitive to rue. It is also said to repel cats and snakes and has been planted to keep them from entering the garden. A bug repellent is also made from rue.
The smell of rue is strong, but many cultures do not regard it as offensive and even use it in perfumes and cooking, although not as commonly in today’s cuisine. It was and remains a traditional spice in Greece and some other Mediterranean countries and can be found in grappa alla ruta.
Rue is mostly grown today as an ornamental specimen for its attractive gray green foliage. In naturopathic and Chinese medicine, it is still used to treat earaches (see below), bring on menses, and relax the smooth muscles of the digestive system. It is used as an aid to spasmodic coughs. The leaves can be chewed to relieve tension headaches, ease palpitations and other anxiety problems. It also increases peripheral circulation and lowers elevated blood pressure.
Parts of the Plant Used:
Fresh leaf or dried leaf harvested before flowering and dried out of direct sunlight.
Essential oil, rutin, coumarin, alkaloids, tannins, resin, ascorbic acid, ketones
Anti-spasmodic, emmenogogue, anti-tussive, abortifacient
Ear Drops: Warm several sprigs of fresh rue leaves over medium heat in 1 Tablespoon of olive oil for 2-5 minutes. Let stand until cool and remove the herbs. Put a few drops in the ear and stop with a cotton ball. Use for an earache where no puss or discharge is present.
***The use of rue internally is contraindicated during pregnancy.
There are many herbs with similar medicinal properties that are easier and safer to use. We suggest using rue under the direction of a naturopath or herbalist.