Friday, 8 February 2013


Rue (Ruta graveolens)

A commonplace ingredient in Roman cooking, Rue is also the national herb of Lithuania, a literary symbol of regret, and, according to Pliny the Elder, a great weapon against caterpillar attacks (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 19.45). In the same passage Pliny also says that the Romans "held Rue in peculiar esteem", which, given its regular occurrence in Apician recipes, I can well believe.  Before you decide to fight off caterpillars or honour any Lithuanian heritage you might have, I need you to err on the side of caution.


  • Picking fresh Rue without gloves can cause lovely blisters.
  • Rue is toxic in large quantities, causing everything from tummy ache to liver failure.  If you want to be completely scared off, check out this page of possible side-effects.
  • FOR WOMEN: Rue can induce abortion and menstruation.  Do not eat if pregnant.  

Basically, don't go eating bowlfuls of the stuff, stick to whatever measures are suggested, and don't even think of touching it if you are even just the tiniest bit pregnant.  How people even discovered that this was edible, I do not know.


You know that stuff you put on your nails to stop you biting them?  It tastes like that.  Rue is extremely bitter.  This bitterness helps to tone down the characteristic sweetness of Roman foods.

Finding it

After months of visiting garden centres, herbalists, and spice stalls I finally found this herb in a shop in Durham Marketplace (Pauline's Health Cabin for all who fancy a visit, or you can send an email to  I would recommend searching local herbalists in the hopes of finding some Rue.  Other than that, the only alternative is to buy some seeds online, and grow it yourself.


Rue is as bitter as anything I've ever tasted, and it is hard to suggest an alternative.  Besides adding anti nail-biting polish to your Roman masterpiece, you might consider:

  • Dandelion Leaves


  1. Great blog. I also love historically-inspired cooking (but do more ancient-modern fusion). In the USA, there is a company called Mountain Rose Herbs that sells rue online.

  2. About an hour ago, I came upon a rue bush for the very first time. I don't recall ever having heard of rue. I pinched a few leaves to smell it. It was amazing! I've never smelled anything like it. I am, however, 20 weeks pregnant. I just read your warning not to touch it if you are expecting. Is that because of the risk of skin irritation? Or something worse???

  3. Touching it won't have caused any problems, and if you didn't get skin irritation from it you'll be grand. It's just best not to eat any as it contains a chemical which can possibly cause abortion. The risk is low, but is still there. I wouldn't worry.

    Tell me more about the smell!