Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sweet Woodruff - Herb of the Week

The planets seemed to align and tell me to choose this herb this week.  Tina Sams from The Essential Herbal Magazine, said they served May Wine (which is made with Sweet Woodruff) at an Herb Festival back in the early days.  I took pictures of Sweet Woodruff that has volunteered in my herb garden. Then author Susan Wittig Albert focused on Sweet Woodruff in her weekly herb newsletter “It’s About Thyme.” 

With all that karma it has to be this week’s
      Herb of the Week  -- Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)

This herb has many names in some cases it is known as Sweet Bedstraw or Wild Baby’s Breath.  In France it is known as Asperule Odorante which is sometimes incorrectly given as its scientific name.  The name woodruff grew out of the earlier wuderove, or "wood-wheel" (rove comes from the French word for wheel). Master of the woods would be a literal translation of the German name Waldmeister.

The plant contains the plant chemical coumarin, and when it is dried smells like a cross between freshly-mown hay and vanilla. It is this aromatic quality that give it the scientific name odoratum.  This scent increases on wilting and then persists on drying. It has long been valued for potpourris and perfumes and is a favorite in both sleep and moth repellant sachets. It was once used to stuff mattresses and pillows (hence the name, bedstraw).  For gardeners with a shady, wooded area, sweet woodruff can be an ideal groundcover.

Historical Uses

In the language of flowers Sweet Woodruff means "Be cheerful and rejoice in life."  It is used in Wedding bouquets to communicate that sentiment.  Those born under the sign of Capricorn  count Sweet Woodruff among their useful pants mostly because during the Middle Ages, the herb gained a reputation as a wound healer and was used to treat digestive and liver problems.  To celebrate St. Barnabas (patron saint of peace makers) on his feast day in June one can where a garland of roses, sweet woodruff, and wild William as the Saint once did.

 “From my youth I recall that elusive smell of woods in spring—a sweetness ascending from mold and decay but with the breath of young life rising from it.”
            ~ Adelma Grenier Simmons, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons referring to Sweet Woodruff and May Wine

To Grow

Sweet Woodruff is a flowering perennial plant in the family Rubiaceae, native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. An herbaceous plant, it grows to 8 to 10 inches long, often lying flat on the ground or supported by other plants. This is the time of year we see the wheel-shaped spirals of leaves on a square stem that are the signature of Sweet Woodruff.  Small, fragrant, glossy-green leaves grow in whorls around the slender, many-branched stems.  Loose clusters of small, white, star-shaped, fragrant flowers arrive in late spring.  These Spring flowers are edible.  A low growing shade loving plant, it makes an excellent ground cover. Sweet woodruff grows in shady patches at the edge of forests. It has star-like whorls of narrow, bright-green leaves on 8 to 10-inch high stalks. 

Sweet woodruff is a low, rapidly-spreading, perennial plant that forms clumps about 8 inches in height. The slender leaves are borne in starry whorls. The flowers are tiny and white and form in loose clusters.  Sweet woodruff can be grown as a perennial down to Zone 4, but it needs winter protection in Zone 3 and lower. It will thrive in semi shade and makes an attractive ground cover under taller plants. It prefers a Moist, well-drained soil.  I noticed that it does not seem to mind a more acidic soil as it grew well surrounding my Pine Trees at the front and back of my property. 

Try to plant in a location that enjoys full shade / dappled sun and remember to water very often. Use Zone 4 - Zone 8 as your guideline for the appropriate climate for this plant. Sweet woodruff is generally regarded as a hardy plant, so it can be safe to leave outdoors for the majority of winter (although if in doubt, using a row cover is often a good idea).

Sow seeds directly in the garden during late spring, or select bright green seedlings that haven't flowered.  Transplant Sweet Woodruff from established areas in spring before the weather gets hot.  Place plants five to nine inches apart and mulch them well if they will receive more than four hours of full sun each day. The plants will spread and grow into one another, creating a dense mat. It is shallow rooted so a little judicious thinning is fast and easy to do of the plants begin to overtake an area.


The sharpness of woodruff is seen by those who make their own beer ad being mildly reminiscent of hops. In Germany they will use it not only to craft May Wine, but also craft a woodruff-flavored sugar syrup used to balance the lactic acidity of a spritzy Berliner Weisse.

Traditionally used to make May Wine in Germany, with strawberries and sweet white wine, the aroma is used for flavoring and coloring bright green waldmeister jelly.  This strongly scented plant, gets it sweet smell from coumarin. It is also used, mainly in Germany, to flavor May wine, beer (Berliner Weisse), brandy, sausages, jelly, jam, a soft drink called Tarhun, ice cream, and an herbal tea with gentle sedative properties. High doses can cause headaches, due to the toxicity of coumarin. Very high doses of coumarin can cause vertigo, somnolence or even central paralysis and apnea while in a coma. Since 1981, woodruff may no longer be used as an ingredient of industrially produced drinks and food stuffs in Germany.

Harvest the leaves for tea or for May Wine. Select blemish-free, young growth and try to harvest and dry plants in the spring when fragrance is the strongest.   As ever, when harvesting from the wild you should use a good field guide, be aware of look-a-like plants.  It is possible to confuse Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) with Cleavers (Galium aparine) Cleavers is also a medicinal plant so confusing the two will not be harmful.  You will know the Sweet Woodruff by the stronger aroma.  Sweet Woodruff is darker green and has sticky hairs on its seeds, but the leaves tend to be smooth and more pointed. Sweet Woodruff is a perennial whereas Cleavers is an annual.


May Wine Punch
    recipe from Susan Wittig Albert  

1 gallon of Rhine wine
12 to 16 sprigs of sweet woodruff
1 package of frozen strawberries, thawed
1 cup sugar
Fresh whole strawberries

Dry the sweet woodruff sprigs overnight in an off but warm oven.  Then steep the Sweet Woodruff in the wine for 3 to 6 days.  Chill before serving.  Remove the herbs and pour the chilled wine in a punchbowl over an ice ring.  Mash thawed strawberries with a cup of sugar and stir into the wine.  Add champagne for a bit of bubbles and garnish each glass with a fresh slice of strawberry.

Wedding Potpourri (to toss on the Bride and Groom)

Amaranth: "Everlasting love"
Chamomile: "May your wishes come true"
Coriander: "Your closeness is welcome"
Feverfew: "You light up my life"
Lavender: "Devotion; loyalty"
Marjoram: "Joy and happiness"
Mint: "Warmth of feeling"
Rose: "Love; beauty"
Sage: "Long life and good health"
Thyme: "Strength and courage"
Woodruff: "Be cheerful and rejoice in life"

Combine these dry ingredients and place inside paper doilies or tissue tea bags so guests can easily tear them open to toss the contest over the bride and groom.  The rich symbolism of the language of herbs and flowers makes this a special part of the ceremony.

If this is just a symbolic potpourri not used to toss, Rosemary "Remembrance" can be added.

Aromatic Mint Tea
Remember that Sweet Woodruff is fine in moderation but excessive amounts can cause a build-up of coumarin which causes headaches and vertigo.  Enjoy this tea only occasionally and in small amounts.

2 parts Spearmint
1 part Marjoram
1 part Sweet Woodruff
1 part Sage

Blend herbs together and keep in a jar with a tightly fitted lid.  Use 1 tsp. per cup of boiled water and allow to steep 5 to 7 minutes.
Scented Pillows
One of the best ways to enjoy Sweet Woodruff is to use it in pillow or a sachet.  The herb is considered a fixative in moth repelling sachets, as it does not attract insects so its nice aroma can be used to offset the smell of insect repelling herbs like eucalyptus and penny royal.

Dream Pillow Blend
Jim Long in his book Making Herbal Dream Pillows suggested this combination of herbs to create romantic dreams. Which according to Jim are the type you fondly recall but do not share aloud.  At the Backyard Patch, I use Sweet Woodruff in several Household Sachets.

 2  cups calendula flowers
 2 cups rosemary
 2 cups rose petals
1/2  cup lemongrass, cut in short pieces
 1 /2 cup sweet woodruff
 1/4 cup mugwort
 ½  tablespoon mint
 1/2 tablespoon marjoram
 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
 1 lemon geranium leaf (such as ‘Mabel Grey’)
 1 piece cinnamon bark, about 1/2 inch long, broken

Combine the herbs in container and allow to meld for 2 to 3 weeks before placing about ½ cup into a sachet or using to stuff a pillow.

Orange-Eucalyptus Scented Sachet
2 oz. hops
1/2 oz. Eucalyptus
 1 oz. meadowsweet
1 oz. woodruff
 1 oz. crushed cloves,
1 oz. crushed orange peel
1 oz. orris root
few drops sweet orange essential oil

Mix all ingredients and store in a covered jar for 2 weeks, shaking container daily. Pack the dried flower mixture into a small pillow made of closely woven fabric.


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