From a distance, rue is such a quiet plant. Its delicate, blue-green leaves happily fade into the background, its flowers are small and unassuming, and its height begs for a nice, invisible spot somewhere in the middle of the garden bed. It’s a useful member of the chorus, but as a soloist? Please. We have roses for that. (Actually, I don’t. I have “Wild Thing” autumn sage for that. But that’s another story.) (And not a particularly interesting one.)
Rue may walk softly, but it carries a big stick. Its foliage can cause blisters like poison ivy, especially if you brush against it on hot, sunny days. It has a host of medicinal uses, none of them particularly pleasant. Cats tend to avoid it, even Sir Marley, who has adopted my garden as his combined litterbox/feeding ground/scratching post and is not deterred by much. And, as one of my favorite gardening books says, “It is a preferred host plant for swallowtail butterflies and their larvae.” (Which, translated out of gardenspeak, means that “big fat caterpillars will munch on this plant.”)
But none of these are the reasons that I’m impressed (and surprised) by rue. The real reason is that, up close and personal, it is still a quiet plant, but one that shines with the joys of quietness. Alone, each leaflet has the finely etched precision of frost on a windowpane; en masse the foliage plays with light and shadow like a Dutch master. The flowers in bud are fascinating little buttons of green; when the petals open, like nesting dolls, they reveal a smaller button within. In winter the stems and leaves turn a rich purple—in fact, it was the winter foliage that first taught me to love this plant.
In a large garden, rue might well be overlooked in favor of more outgoing plants; in a small garden, however, every plant can have its say, and the plants that slow us down and encourage us to take our time in the garden, to savor each leaf and blossom, are the more valuable. For all its quietness, rue sends a powerful message. Stop. Look closer. Be surprised.