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Rue is a shrub-like evergreen plant which has been cultivated in Europe for thousands of years. Any plant in the genus Ruta can be known by this name, but common rue, also known as Herb of Grace, is what most gardeners visualize when this plant is mentioned. The botanical name for common rue is Ruta graveolens, and the plant has numerous symbolic associations. It has been a part of human history and tradition for a very long time, and it appears in numerous songs, stories, plays, and poems.
Gardeners who are interested in adding rue to the garden should beware. The plant has a sharp, acrid smell and taste that some people find very disagreeable. In addition, the sap of the plant is a skin irritant, requiring careful handling. The plant is also not terribly impressive to look at, with lobed, fleshy, blue-green leaves and greenish-yellow flowers that appear between June and September.
However, rue will thrive in almost any garden conditions. The plant prefers partial shelter and dry soil, and seems to particularly favor the worst part of the garden. It can be grown from seeds, slips, or cuttings, making it very easy to establish a patch. Rue does especially well in Mediterranean climates, since it is native to Southern Europe. Many people who wish to establish replicas of medieval gardens use this plant, along with other traditional herbs such as thyme and rosemary.
There are some useful applications for rue. Historically, the plant has been used to make medicines for a variety of complaints, although it is no longer widely used in herbal medicine. It does have some anti-spasmodic properties, and it may be helpful with some digestive complains. However, it cannot be consumed in large volume, or it can become toxic. Rue is more useful as a flea and insect repellent around the house and garden, and it can also be distilled for use as an antiseptic cleaner. In the garden, it can help to reduce insect infestations naturally, although it should be planted around edible plants with care.
Many ancient cultures, including the Greeks, associated rue with protection from witchcraft and the evil eye. Charms made of it were worn or used to decorate homes, and some jewelers produced stylized versions of the plant in silver and gold which were intended for protection. The Christian church used rue in certain holy ceremonies, adding the association of bitterness and regret which is commonly linked with it.