RUE (Ruta graveolens): Origin: native to the Mediterranean region. The word Ruth is Old English for sorrow and remorse, and the verb to rue, was to be sorry or to take pity – and rue commonly is called the herb of grace, memory, and repentance. The ancient Greeks used rue to clear eyesight, and according to some accounts, it was favored by artists. Rue if undiluted may be a skin irritant, but if applied in small quantities or used in baths may be prescribed for rash and skin diseases. Rue was considered to be a strong defense against witches and sprigs used in many spells and for divination.
The Gerarde herbal relates that rue provokes urine, reduces sickness, expels the dead child [miscarriage] and afterbirth [of a positive delivery] when the decoction is drunk and considered excellent support for the mother. Gerarde cites several lines from his time regarding the uses of rue:
Noble is Rue because it makes th’eie fight both sharp and cleere;
With helpe of Rue, O blear-eyd man, thou shalt see far and neere.
Gerarde continued: if juice of rue is heated with pomegranate rind and dripped into the ears, this will ease earache. Rue also was used to counter ergot poisoning and to quench the fire of Saint Anthonies [St. Anthony]. If rue was tempered with a mixture of white lead, vinegar, and oil of roses, this combination will would kill shingles as well as the running ulcers and sores on the heads of young children. If leaves of rue are inserted into the nostrils, this will stop nosebleeds. Rue leaves pounded and mixed with walnut kernels or figs countered bad air, pestilence, and the plague; rue mixed with sage and eaten before dining made beverages safe for the consumer. Gerarde also wrote that rue boiled with vinegar would relieve a stich in the side or chest, and would soften the pain in joints and knuckle bones. Oil from the rue leaves will colic and pangs in the guts, and has been used with success to treat dropsie [i.e. dropsy: excessive edema due to water retention] when applied to the belly in the manner of a poultice. Rue boiled in wine along with dill, fennel seed, and some sugar is used to treat torments and gripping pains of the belly as well as pains in the side and breast. Juice of rue mixed with wine is used to purge women who deliver and will assist expelling the afterbirth.
The Culpeper herbal contains a wide number of medical-related topics involving rue:: it is called the Herb of Grace and has many virtues; it provokes urine and women’s courses when taken with food or drink; when seeds of rue are taken in wine, it is an antidote against all dangerous medicines or deadly poisons; leaves used alone or mixed with figs and walnuts will counteract the plague and cause all venomous things to become harmless; decoctions of dried dill leaves and flowers will ease all pains and torments; reduce cough and hardness of breathing, information of the lungs, and the torments of sciatica; will cure the shaking fits; when boiled in wine with a little honey will kill and drive forth worms of the belly; reduces joint pain and gout; mashed and inserted into the nostrils will stop nosebleeds; rue leaves mixed with wax will remove wheals [raised itchy patch of skin] and pimples; when boiled in wine with pepper and nitre [saltpeter or potassium nitrate] and applied to warts, they will be removed; rue leaves blended with almonds and honey help reduce dry scabs and ringworm. Rue juice warmed in a pomegranate shell or with rind, then dripped into the ears, reduces earache. Juice from rue leaves mixed with fennel, honey, and the gall of a rooster then applied to the eyes will help cure dim eye-sight; An ointment made of rue leaves or juice mixed with oil of roses, and vinegar will cure St. Anthony’s fire [ergot poisoning] and all running sores in the head and stinking ulcers of the nose or other parts [of the body];
English and German traditions describe wreaths composed of rue and willow shoots, that when worn permit witches to be seen. Long standing customs hold that rue is good for the eyes, an antidote to poison, and will save consumers from contracting the plague. In 1750 the Criminal Court at Old Bailey in London was strewn with rue in an attempt to counter “jail fever” that raged in nearby Newgate prison. Rue is symbolic of repentance and sorrow; sprigs can be used by believers to bless or curse, to help or harm; infusions used to improve appetite and to relieve cough and the common cold. It is said that to smell rue will drive away the plague, makes eyes keener and improves mental alertness. It also has been used to heal bites of bees and wasps, snakes and scorpions. In the Middle ages it was held that if hunters or soldiers boiled their gun-flints with rue and vervain (Verbena officinalis) that their aim would be accurate. It is said that if one wishes to identify any person nearby as a witch, then carry a packet of rue mixed with leaves of agrimony (Agrimonia spp.), maiden-hair [may or may not be the fern Adiantum capillus-veneris], and ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), and those who are witches can be seen. (Summarized from: Gerarde, 1597, pp. 1072-1076; Culpeper, 1653, pp. 159-160; Thiselton-Dyer, 1889, p. 56; Skinner, 1911, pp. 261-262; Colin, 1962, p. 75; Northcote, 1971, pp. 134-136; Priestley and Priestley, 1979, pp. 106-108; Vickery, 1995, pp. 322-323)