Rue (Ruta Graveolens)
Rue has been used for centuries as a medical preparation and has a variety of roles, probably because of its varied chemical composition. It has been used to improve eyesight and nerves and to treat insect bite, gout, worms, rheumatism, and hysteria. In the Middle Ages, it was used to ward off plague and as a defense against witches. The native peoples of North America made extensive use of rue, as did the Aztecs and Mayas (Vogel 1970, 78, 413). One of its prime uses in Greek and Roman medicine was as an abortifacient and emmenagogue. In Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, John Riddle gives over twenty separate citations for rue in this role. The ancient gynecologist Soranus describes a preparation of "3 drachmas of rue leaves, 2 drachmas of myrtle, 2 drachmas of laurel, mix with wine" as an effective abortifacient. Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder and Oribasius all advocate the use of rue, and Quintus Serenus indicates that a preparation of "egg, rue and dill" will serve to induce an abortion (Riddle 1992 47, 91).
Rue is a perennial that grows to 2 feet. It is a symbol of sorrow and repentance, sometimes called the 'Herb of Grace'. In addition to its abortifacient and emmanegogue activity it has antispasmodic activity with large doses resulting in GI pains, confusion, twitching and vomiting. Some of the compounds contained in rue have been found to be mutagenic in large doses (Paulini and Schimmer 1987, p. 271).
The chemical composition is large and varied. Over 110 chemicals have been found in all parts of the plant, including fats, oils, flavanoids, alkaloids, essential oils and a host of others. Of these chemical compounds, 36 are said to have some chemical activity with four of these listed with either abortifacient or antifertility activity. Aborinine, graveolinine and skimmianine are listed as abortion-producing while chalepensin is listed with antifertility activity (Duke 1992). Those with abortion producing activity belong to the class of compounds known as alkaloids with the antifertility of chalepesin established by research (Kong et al. 1989, p. 176). We have limited this essay to the role of rue as an abortifacient and emmanegogue since a discussion of all the active compounds would consume many pages and defeat the purpose of these focused essays.