Friday, January 8, 2016

Herb of Grace

Last month I read Henry Beston's small book on Herbs and the Earth. It was charming, old fashioned, and he wrote about nature and the garden in beautiful, poetic images.

We got discussing it at my garden group and when I mentioned that one of the herbs he rhapsodizes about, Common Rue, is a plant I'd never even seen, the whole group was amazed. Every one of them told me it's a plant I should have in my garden.

It's ancient; the Romans knew it and grew it. Medieval herbalists did too, and sprigs were sprinkled on people in Catholic masses, giving Rue the beautiful name "herb of grace".  In Shakespearean plays characters plant banks of Rue for weeping queens. Modern gardeners love it for its curious blue foliage and low bushy habit.

So . . .  definitely.

I trust the gardeners in my group, all of them far more experienced than I am, and all of them in love with this plant. I immediately went home and looked online for sources where I could buy Ruta graveolens to plant in my garden next spring.

Yikes. Really?

The foliage is interesting, ferny and dissected. Okay. The flowers are small and yellow. Right. The habit in most images I found made it look a little weedy. Um, fine.

I really value the opinions of the gardeners in my group, and the writings of a famous naturalist like Henry Beston as well, not to mention Shakespeare and the ancients who adored this herb. I must be missing something.

So I researched Common Rue some more.


Everyone in the group mentioned that handling the foliage gives some (but not all) people a skin rash, and the online sources all warned "wear gloves". The rash, if you are one of the unfortunates who gets it, is awful and lasts a long time. Sunlight triggers it after touching the leaves.

Rue is also toxic if ingested. Although Mediterranean cultures have used small quantities of the leaves in cooking for centuries, it is actually highly toxic if you ingest more than a little. Another set of warnings from my research: do not eat or taste the leaves.

But I really want to have this beloved herb despite it being weedy looking, rash-causing, and poisonous. I really think I do.

So I did more research and found it is advised to plant Rue where you have problems with animals in the garden because it stinks. The smell of the plant is described as unpleasant to humans, and repellant to cats.

It may be repellant to bugs too. Rue is often planted in front of roses to keep insect pests away.

Now I am giving up.

Common Rue stinks, causes horrible rashes, is toxic, and I can't find a picture that even comes close to Henry Beston's description of a plant "like nothing else in the garden, for it is a dark and somber tone of blue green lightened with a silvering of gray. Mysterious in color and strange of leaf, potent, ancient, and dark, Rue is the herb of magic, the symbol of the earthly unknown . . . " (he goes on).

But it is the recommendations of my garden friends that I struggle with most. All six of them said this is a stunning, fascinating, easy plant for the front of a sunny border or along a walk and it is absolutely something I would love.

And because I so treasure this group and their botanical experience and their consistently good advice, I am going to buy Ruta graveolens, maybe one plant of it, and try it to see what is so beloved about this herb.

If I get a rash though, or get sick to my stomach, or find the thing is too smelly or too weedy . . . . herb of grace or no, friends or not, there will be unholy retribution.

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