Has a smell or taste ever brought back your childhood memories?

A while ago, Hilary Haarhoff gave me a little rue plant to ward off insects in my veggie patch.  For months on end this little plant struggled, perhaps not liking the new position where I planted it, but lately it’s  flourishing, keeping the few veggies I have free from unwanted critters.  Perhaps it likes the peas I planted, perhaps it likes me now?

Green Feast Peas

For the first time  I planted some peas this year.  With all the trees gone on the neighbour’s side, I  now have ample sun for half the day, ideal for growing veg. The vigorous Green Feast variety of peas have climbed up the wire fence at an alarming rate, first sending out flower stalks with the prettiest white pea flowers:  the fragrance not quite as strong as the ornamental Sweet Peas but still very alluring. The pods develop very quickly,  and over a few  weeks they ‘fatten’  up, ballooning to encase up to 10 or 11  peas in the pod.

This ‘pea patch’ is next to my washing line – every morning results in a treasure hunt for pods ready to harvest.  There is nothing more satisfying than to snap the pods off the bush, opening them up, and popping  the sweet deliciousness  in the mouth. Memories came back of me as a little girl sitting in the ‘pea patch’ (not pee patch!) in our Sabie garden.  Accompanied by my little dog we feasted on what was on offer – one pod for me, one for her.  Don’t know if that was the cause of her early death, but at least she had a happy life!

Back to Rue –   the smell of rue brings back another childhood memory – that of my Granny’s garden on a farm near Louis Trichardt (Makhado).  Just as well the smell was so off-putting that I never picked the pretty flowers,  as rue is known to cause skin rashes. She most probably grew it for medicinal purposes, or who knows she may have used it in cooking, or heaven forbid witchcraft!


The rue herb (Ruta graveolens) commonly known herb-of-grace, is considered to be an old fashioned garden plant.  In the ancient Roman world, the naturalists Pedanius Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder recommended that rue be combined with the poisonous shrub Oleander to be drunk as an antidote to poisonous snake bites. I do wonder if anyone survived that concoction! I think the patients ‘ chance of survival was better with snake bite alone!

Rue is also a common ingredient in witchcraft and spell making. During the Middle Ages it was a symbol of recognition between witches. The Catholic Church also used a branch of rue to sprinkle holy water on its followers during this time known as the “herb of grace.”

Rue has a culinary use, but since it is bitter and gastric discomfort may be experienced by some individuals, it is used sparingly. Although used more extensively in former times, it is not an herb that is typically found in modern cuisine. Today it is largely unknown to the general public and most chefs, and unavailable in grocery stores.  It is a component of berbere,  the characteristic Ethiopian spice mixture, and as such is encountered in Ethiopian cuisine.

Butterfly on Rue

It has a variety of other culinary uses:

  • It was used extensively in ancient Near Eastern and Roman cuisine (according to Ibn Sayyar al-Warraqand Apicius).
  • Rue is used as a traditional flavouring in Greece and other Mediterranean countries.
  • In Istria(a region in Croatia), and in Northern Italy, it is used to give a special flavour to grappa/raki and most of the time a little branch of the plant can be found in the bottle. This is called grappa alla ruta.
  • Seeds can be used for porridge.
  • The bitter leaf can be added to eggs, cheese, fish, or mixed with damson plums and wine to produce a meat sauce.
  • In Italy in Friuli Venezia-Giulia, the young branches of the plant are dipped in a batter, deep-fried in oil, and consumed with salt or sugar. They are also used on their own to aromatise a specific type of omelette
  • Used in Old Worldbeers as flavouring ingredient.



But just because a herb has fallen out of favour for its original intent does not mean that it can’t have a place in the garden for other reasons. While little known, growing rue herb in the garden can be helpful to a gardener in a number of ways. Its strong smell is a repellent to many creatures, including dogs, cats and beetles. Because of this, it makes an excellent companion plant. It has semi-woody growth, which means that it can be pruned into hedges. It attracts some types of butterflies, bees and bee flies, and, last but not least, makes a lovely cut flower.

For all of these reasons, it is beneficial to a gardener to learn how to grow rue. Rue plants have bluish-green, fernlike leaves that are bushy and compact. The flowers on the rue herb are yellow with petals that are frilly on the edges and the center of the flower is normally green. Rue normally grows to a height 90cm.

Rue herb does well in a variety of soil but does best in well drained soil. In fact, it will do well in the rocky, dry soil that many other plants have a difficult time surviving. It needs full sun to grow well. It is drought tolerant and rarely, if ever,  needs to be watered. Care should be taken when handling rue plants. The sap of the rue plant is often irritating and can burn or leave rashes on people’s skin.

Rue can be harvested and used in the house as an insect repellent. Simply cut some of the leaves and dry them, then put the dried leaves in cloth bags. These sachets can be placed where ever you need to repel bugs.  I’ll harvest the seeds, and you are most welcome to have some when they are ready for planting.


Rue is mentioned in the Bible, Luke 11.42: “But woe unto you, Pharisees! For ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs”

It is one of the flowers distributed by the mad Ophelia in William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet (IV.5):

“There’s fennel for you, and columbines:

there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me:

we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays:

O you must wear your rue with a difference…”