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The modern rennaisance of rue

  • 2005-07-27
  • By Karina Juodelyte
VILNIUS - Lithuania is renowned for many things: its sporting prowess, its cutting-edge theater, its outstanding beer and so the list goes on. But not so long ago, at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the country's most iconic and widely used symbols was rue.
Rue - a perennial plant with a strong, heavy odor and bitter taste 's could be found in almost every Lithuanian garden. Rich with folklore and symbolism, the flower was widely seen as the embodiment of Lithuanian culture.

Over the last few decades, however, rue has nearly disappeared, used only in traditional wedding ceremonies. It wasn't until recently that the plant once again became part of Lithuanian life.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when Lithuania was dominantly agrarian, rue was used during many important social ceremonies, such as baptisms, first communions, marriages and sometimes funerals. As a symbol of purity, the flower represented the rites of passage in a young person's life.

According to Veronika Povilioniene, one of Lithuania's most famous folk singers, rue's traditional significance - love and eroticism 's is echoed in hundreds of folksongs.

"Lithuanians did not use the actual word 'love' in their songs. They used to cover this feeling with symbols such as rue. In fact, two thirds of Lithuanian folk songs are about love and sometimes we don't even know it."

The image of a young man trampling over a rue garden appears often in folk songs, subtly veiling the song's erotic message.

Rue is also known as a the "herb of grace." Paradoxically, even though the plant is considered a flower of purity, it was used as a primitive means of birth control. Lithuanians believed that the flower would protect a girl from the unwanted consequences of "trampling a rue garden."

Although rue contains toxic oils such as abortifacient, ingesting the plant in small doses might even be healthy. Folk songs also tell of various alcoholic drinks that were prepared with small quantities of rue.

Virginija Beleckiene, a teacher at Klaipeda Tourism School, has been instrumental in restoring the plant to its former role in cultural and social life.

Beleckiene concocted a cocktail from white rum, vermouth, syrup and a branch of rue. The cocktail gained distinction in the Czech Republic's International Barmen's Association Contest for its unique taste and originality.

"We wanted to prepare something original that would represent Lithuania," says Beleckiene.

Unfortunately, the cocktail was prepared especially for the contest and is not available for public consumption.

Another woman intent on helping re-establish rue in Lithuania is Sandra Straukaite. The renowned designer wants to share the plant's wonderful symbolism with the rest of the world and, to this end, has transformed it into a new fashion line called "Ruta Remake."

The project started a couple of years ago when two artists 's Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas 's decided to explore female voices. They prepared an interactive table at which visitors could mix their own sound installations. The artists decided to call the project "Ruta Remake" because they were inspired after seeing a rue branch on a factory worker's headscarf in an old movie.

"At first we wanted to design headscarves simply as a supplement to the "Ruta Remake" project, but Sandra is a very creative personality. Through talking to her we understood that a fashion line would be an interesting extension of the project," says Nomeda Urboniene.

Even though rue is traditionally associated with women, Straukaite's collection is unisex and bears a decidedly mixed message. The rue is used to form a sort of camouflage pattern. "Rue is a flower capable of protecting itself. So the aim of the collection suits it perfectly," she explains.

"We like playing with ambiguity and having many layers of meaning. Rue is womanly and camouflage is associated with manhood. The combination is very intriguing," says Urboniene.

The collection quickly became a huge hit with Lithuanians. "We have already had many orders at home. People from abroad are also getting interested in the collection. I have introduced it in some European countries and got a very positive response. The Internet store is also a great help in making the collection accessible to people from all around the world," Straukaite says.

So it would seem that rue is set to make an unlikely comeback in Lithuanian culture. "It is a pity that we destroy our old traditions. Rue was superseded by more elaborate flowers. I am happy that some people have taken the initiative to revive these old traditions," Povilioniene says.

Urboniene believes that the reason rue never died out completely as a cultural symbol was because it continued to be part of the traditional wedding ceremony.

"We shouldn't disregard tradition," says Straukaite. "If it was important to our ancestors, it should also be important to us. However, we are free to improvise and adapt traditions to the contemporary world. In "Ruta Remake" rue is certainly shown from a new angle."