You’ll Rue the Day . . . a Tale of Two Plants

Rue anemone

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

The following article was contributed by Linda Thoman, Lifetime Georgia Master Gardener and Keep Morgan Beautiful volunteer coordinatoor

Rue in history & literature

(Chuck Lower, UGA emeritus, leads a Shakespeare Reading Group in Madison, GA called “Shakespeare lives here”) :

Shakespeare wrote about rue in several of his books. Rue was planted by the gardener in “Richard II” 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.”

When I first moved to Lake Oconee, little did I know what meaning these words would have for me. I did know the word, the herb, but not the how and why. Use of the herb goes back to ancient times when it was used as a condiment for food. Rue (Ruta graveolens) has been replaced by more palatable spices, like black pepper. Rue’s culinary use in cooking is limited by its bitterness and potential toxicity. For the brave and curious only:  a tiny pinch of rue can be used as flavoring in a salad dressing.

Rue is a plant that should be approached with caution. It is known to cause contact dermatitis from handling the fresh leaves of the plant. From what I’ve read poisoning by ingestion of rue is mostly of historical interest or fiction. I still wouldn’t eat it in any but the smallest quantity.

Common rue comes from the family Rutaceae, native to the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia. It is a beautiful perennial plant, usually growing only 2 feet tall with blue green, smoothly rounded, lacy leaflets. It needs well drained soil and full sun, ideally. Rue may not look anything like plants that bear citrus fruit, but it comes from the same botanical family. Species of this family generally have flowers that divide into four or five parts, usually with strong scents. It’s a diverse family with members that range in form and size from herbs to shrubs and small trees.

Here’s how I used the rue I grew in my container garden. I dried the rue, combined it with dried rosemary and sewed it into a “sachet.”  I gave the sachets to my friend who had rude, but beloved, cats in her home.  When placed strategically, the smell from the sachets so offended the cats that they kept their distance from whatever nice furniture they wanted to violate.

Okay, back to “rue”ing the day….when I first moved to our Lake Oconee home, I suffered in the garden. My skin is sensitive — poison ivy gets me itching just to look at it. No matter what I did: don garden battle armor, use topical antidotes and shower immediately after gardening, I wasn’t always safe from the effects of contact dermatitis. On the lookout before any digging ensues, I found out the native Virginia creeper that I loved was an irritant. I tried to dig in the early spring, before the volatile oils of these plants’ roots really rev up.  Still, something always got me.

I learned it was the roots of a beautiful little native plant (about 6″-9″ tall) with a graceful white flower that grows on our steep woodland slope. It is an early perennial which appears in March and has a long blooming period. After blooming, the whole plant dies back and is dormant until the next Spring. The common name of this plant originates from the similarity of this plant to a windflower (a small anemone) and another plant that can irritate the skin (you guessed it–rue): Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides).

Rue anemone

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

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