(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 25, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Rue, (also known as Ruta or Common Rue or, more eloquently, ‘Herb of Grace'), is an interesting and lovely herbaceous shrub that will add a unique blue-green foliage accent to your garden.
A small evergreen semi-woody perennial that matures to about two feet tall and wide, rue has been used as a medicinal and "anti-magic" herb for centuries, and was even considered a reliable defense against witches. Keep that in mind as Halloween approaches!
Quite drought-tolerant once established, rue thrives in poor sandy soils and hot, dry sites that receive full sun. A bit of afternoon shade is probably a good idea in Southwest gardens, however. Excellent drainage is a must.
'Jackman's Blue,' a popular cultivar in Europe, has beautiful bluish green foliage and can grow to 2-3' tall and wide. 'Blue Beauty' is somewhat smaller, but will still reach about 2' fall, and features gorgeous, powdery blue foliage. 'Variegata' has white splashes on the leaves and is often used in floral arrangements. Lastly, as the name suggests, 'Blue Mound' has a mounding growth habit and will get to about 15" tall.
If left to its own devices, rue will produce tiny, fringed yellow flowers throughout the summer. Some varieties will reseed, while others aren't inclined to do so. All types of rue are quite deer- and bunny-resistant and most will thrive in USDA Zones 4-9, given adequate soil and full sun.
The foliage has a strong, somewhat unpleasant scent when torn; for this reason, it is often used as a natural dog, cat and/or insect repellant.
Rue was formerly used to treat many common human ailments, but modern herbalists now question its effectiveness as well as its safety. In fact, some people who are extremely allergic to rue get blisters and/or a rash from handling the plant, especially on hot days. Consuming large amounts of rue can cause violent stomach pain, vomiting, and convulsions. Pregnant women should never ingest it.
Rue is a symbol of regret, sorrow and repentance (thus the term "rue the day"), and Catholics used sprigs of it to sprinkle holy water on worshippers.
William Shakespeare wrote of rue in several of his classic plays. In Richard II, a gardener plants rue to mark the spot where the Queen wept upon hearing news of Richard's capture:
"Here did she fall a tear, here in this place
I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace."
On the lighter side, the rue leaf is said to have been the model for the suit of clubs in playing cards.
Dave's Garden Photo credits:
‘Jackman's Blue' photo top right by member saya
‘Blue Beauty' photo at left by member mgarr