Monday, July 16, 2012

Rue, mother of herbs

John Everett Millais' Ophelia
Frustrated by this second disastrous summer in a row, I started moving herbs to create a currant and blueberry patch for next summer. A large rue plant was squashed between two bay trees and I decided to put it at the bottom of the allotment which is more shaded and overhung with sycamores. I like its grey-green leaves and bizarre bitter smell and it always reminds me of school, Hamlet and learning quotes.

Two days after transplanting it my forearms flared into blisters - my skin sunburnt from wrist to elbow. What I didn't know about rue, also known as witchbane, herb of grace, mother of the herbs, praised by Culpeper and historically used as an antidote to poison, is that it can photosensitise skin so it burns in the sun. I wear factor 50 as a matter of course since I'm pale anyway. Nearly a week later, my arms are still red and itchy although steroid cream and antihistamines have got rid of the blistering.

It's the most extreme reaction I've had but not unusual according to the Poison Garden website I discovered after talking to the brilliant pharmacist in Elm Grove when my arms were at their worst. He and his team stood in a semi circle around my arms speculating about sap and allergic reactions. An elderly man behind me reminisced about his time in the UK military police when he was used as a guinea pig for mustard gas - his skin looked like mine, apparently.

Later  I remembered moving the rue and googled it, discovering stories like mine where the reaction was delayed but set off by intense sun (amazingly, an hour or so last Wednesday).

Almost everyone I ask associates rue with Ophelia dispensing flowers in her madness: 'there's rue for you; and here's some for me....' Sorrow and repentance - Shakespeare created a perfectly poised line for a plant that is such a powerful healer and simultaneously so dangerous to the skin.

Redon painted Ophelia and flowers too

Mary Anderson played Ophelia in 1884
The Royal Horticultural Society's website has a section on harmful plants :