Cyprus Mail

Plant of the week: Use of toxic plant can lead to mental derangement

Name: Herb of Grace (Ruta graveolans)

Otherwise known as: Herbygrass; Rue

Habitat: An evergreen shrub member of the Rutaceae family growing to about 60cm in well drained barren soil. The plant has blue/green, lobed shaped leaves that are covered in pungent oil glands which gives the whole plant its characteristic smell. The four sparsely arranged undulate petals of the summer flowers are yellow/green in colour and produce a sickle shaped seed. All parts of the plant are toxic and excessive use will lead to mental derangement.

What does it do: The plant featured in ancient ceremonies and was later adopted into the early Christian church and would be used to sprinkle holy water onto the congregation. In medieval times the Catholic priests would arm themselves with bunches of it when conducting a service of exorcism.

The ancient physicians valued it most highly, Dioscorides writes ‘the seed drunk in wine is a counter-poison of serpents, the stinging of scorpions, bees, hornets and wasps; and if a man be anointed with the juice, these will not harm him’.

The Herb of Grace was used to procure abortions, and therefore, should never be taken when pregnant. It is recommended by herbalists to restore the menstrual cycle after months of absence. It is still used as an eye-douche for over-tired eyes: Michelangelo left a reference to the efficacy of the plant as a salve for tired eyes. It can be applied topically to treat bruised bones and damaged cartilage; in southern Italy the herb is a folk cure for wrist ganglion and the tea is a traditional treatment for Bell’s Palsy. In the past it has been recommended for suppressing high blood pressure, treating epilepsy, and curing colic in babies. Homeopaths prepare a tincture from the fresh leaves to treat varicose veins.

The dried stems and leaves have been used for centuries as an insect repellent, Victorian gardeners would steep the root in water-butts for weeks then spray it over their flowerbeds and vegetables. It is reputed to repel mosquitoes and midges.

Essence from the herb is used to flavour grappa and other alcoholic drinks as well as being added to some Italian and German meat products.


Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants

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