An Herb Named Rue

Here in this place, I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace; Rue, even for ruth, shall shortly here be seen, In the remembrance of a weeping queen” ~ William Shakespeare

A Swallowtail caterpillar enjoys some tart rue foliage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A Swallowtail caterpillar enjoys some tart Rue foliage (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

I came across Ruta graveolens, also known as rue, common rue or herb of grace, at a local nursery that carried a wide variety of herbs for medicinal and culinary purposes. But you know me, I’m far more intrigued by how a plant will look in my gardens than what it might do for my health or palate. Fortunately, rue (hardy in zones 5-9) has all the bases covered. It is an attractive plant with bluish grey foliage that is cultivated as a medicinal herb, as a condiment, and as an insect repellent. The herbal history of Ruta graveolens dates back to the mid 1500’s; Greeks served it to remedy nervous indigestion, it was used as a defense against witches throughout Europe, and was even thought to bestow second sight. Ruta graveolens emits an unpleasant odor and has a bitter taste, which could explain its ability to ward off witches. However, for the average gardener it seems more practical to consider rue as an ornamental perennial and critter deterrent, and leave the potions to someone with expertise in that area.

Rue's unusual bluish grey foliage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Rue’s unusual bluish grey foliage (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Rue, a native to Southern Europe, is a shrubby plant that will grow almost anywhere, but thrives best in partially sheltered, dry situations. Actually, I’ve read that rue will live longer and is less likely to be damaged by winter frost when grown in a poor, dry soil than in moist, fertile conditions. I am presently experimenting with two locations (one clay, one amended with compost) to see which plant does better, so far they’re about even. But one thing is certain, rue likes it hot, hot, hot (sorry, no exception for the shade gardeners), so if you have a scorching vacancy for a plant that will grow over 30 inches tall, this might be an option.

The Flower of Ruta graveolens in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The Flower of Ruta graveolens (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Ruta graveolens starts flowering in May with tiny sulfur colored stars that adorn the tips of every stem. The flowers offer a nice contrast to the blue foliage, and a shearing in June will produce another flush of color within weeks. Although I enjoy the delicate blossoms rue produces, it’s really all about the foliage for me. Not only is the smoky grey color a wonderful variation in an otherwise primarily green setting, but the unusual shape and texture of the foliage itself is quite extraordinary. Each leave is comprised of three to five rounded petals and I like to draw attention to the unique oval form by pairing it with different shapes such as Nipponanthemum nipponicum (Montauk daisy) and the fringy Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’.

Ironweed, Rue & Montauk Daisy in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Ironweed, Rue & Montauk Daisy provide a Tapestry of textures (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

With a taste so bitter the verb meaning “regret” is directly associated with it, one might wonder why this herb once called the ‘Herb of Repentance’ would warrant consideration in today’s gardens. Although it is tart and possesses an unpleasant smell, Ruta graveolens is still used as a traditional flavoring in Greece and other Mediterranean countries. In Northern Italy, it is used to give a special flavor to grappa and a little branch of the plant can still be found in many bottles. Rue is considered the national herb of Lithuania and is frequently mentioned in Lithuanian folk songs. Even swallowtail caterpillars find pleasure feeding on its leaves. But most importantly, it is a low maintenance plant with an attractive ensemble. What’s not to love? ♥♥♥


  1. I love Rue, but gardeners, be sure to wear long sleeves and gloves when handling the plants! Their leaves can cause contact dermatitis – similar to nettle.

    • Thank you for mentioning that, Dana. I’m one of the lucky ones that doesn’t have reactions to many plants, so I forget that some have irritating qualities. However, nettle, or seven-minute-itch as I call it, is another case entirely!

  2. I had never heard anyone say that Rue smells unpleasent before.

    I Love the smell of Rue !!! and it’s shape and color as well.

    To each her own , I guess, lol.

    • Thanks for writing, Marisol. I gave every plant on my property the sniff test to see if different soils might produce a different scent. Mine went from no scent at all to a sour scent, I never found anything I would call pleasant. I know its scent is repulsive to unwanted garden visitors – one reason I started using it. In any case, we both agree that its form and color are fabulous, and I’ve found it to be a favorite of the swallowtail caterpillar as well!

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