The garden was a maze, literally. The paths wound about beds and plantings of shrubs, small trees, and herbs. It was easy to lose sight of the fence and surrounding buildings. Although it was on a small lot not too far outside of Boston, you could have been in Europe. The owner was walking with me, trimming wayward twigs and pointing out the medicinal value of every plant. It seemed as though even the occasional weed could be put to good purpose if needed. Only the rare wavering in her step revealed her eighty-some-odd years.
Stopping before a low plant with yellow flowers, I asked about its purpose. She smiled and told me that this was Ruta graveolans, rue. ” The Poles and the Portuguese value the rue.” She walked on and indicated a small strawberry jar crowded with several varieties of basil. But my mind was still on the rue. “What is rue used for?” she smiled and mentioned that a weak decoction was helpful in stomach complaints. How she said, this implied that a potent dose was used for something else. I asked about this, ” Well, in the old times, we’d use it for female complaints.”
This sweet elderly lady was my introduction to the medicinal use of herbs. Over the years I spent in this community developing cultural programs and doing bits of applied anthropology, I would return to the gardens often. The Polish family liked to invite me to lunch in the center of their garden. The Portuguese family introduced me to the multiple varieties of kale. And the Italians who taught me how to garden intensively in small areas. I was in these gardens more than I was in their houses.
The small gardens were frequently densely planted, and as often as not, there were symbolic, culinary, and medicinal reasons to grow certain items. Food and beauty were not the sole criteria for putting them in the small available spaces. So gradually, I learned all three reasons why a plant might exist in the garden.
A few years after that first walk in the maze with my mentor, we again stopped by the rue plant. As I often did while walking with her, I’d repeat what I learned about the plant and its uses. So that day, I repeated what I knew of rue. She smiled and said,” But Louis, rue is a dangerous plant. A weak dose calms the stomach, a stronger one helps with irregular periods, but a slightly stronger one will cause an abortion. The dose is uncertain except for those who are very experienced. So we don’t use it for that anymore. There are safer ways to do things today.”
Last week that discussion by the rue came back to me. As they say, rue is for remembrance.