Mother Earth Living

Herb to Know: Sweet Woodruff

By Betsy Strauch
April/May 1996
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Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.


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Galium odoratum
• (GAY-lee-um oh-doh-RAY-tum)
• Family Rubiaceae
• Hardy perennial

Sweet woodruff, with its whorls of emerald green leaves and white starry flowers, is a welcome sight in late spring, and the foliage is attractive all season long. When dried, the leaves smell pleasantly of new-mown hay, honey, and vanilla.

The genus Galium contains about 400 species of annual or perennial herbs with spreading rhizomes, thin, square, prickly stems, whorled leaves, and small, four-petaled flowers. They are native to temperate regions worldwide. Sweet woodruff (G. odoratum) is native to northern and central Europe, North Africa, and Siberia. It is sparingly naturalized in southern Canada and the northern United States.

Sweet woodruff grows to about a foot tall and spreads indefinitely by stringy yellow underground runners, which form a solid mat that can choke out weaker plants. Evergreen in the South, the elliptical, bristle-tipped leaves are ­ 1 1/2 inches long and grow in whorls of six to eight; they are smooth and dotted with glands above and below and have rough margins. The mildly fragrant flowers, 1/4 inch long, are borne in 1-inch-diameter loose clusters at the stem tips or in the leaf axils. The little round fruits are covered with hooked bristles, which catch on the fur or feathers of passing animals.

The generic name comes from the Greek word gala, “milk”: the leaves of G. verum were once used to curdle milk. Odoratum is Latin for “fragrant”.

While sweet woodruff’s French name, musc de bois (wood musk), and German name, Waldmeister (master of the woods), reflect its habitat, the common name bedstraw, applied also to other members of the genus, refers to its use, dating at least from the Middle Ages, as a fragrant strewing herb and mattress filling. It was also hung in churches as a symbol of humility and placed among stored linens to repel moths and other insects.

Medicinal Uses For Sweet Woodruff

Sweet woodruff has been used to treat disorders of the kidney and liver, uterine cramps and problems of men­o­pause, nervousness, dropsy, varicose veins, poor digestion, and heart ir­regularities, and was added to other medicines to improve their flavor. The bruised leaves, which contain tannins, have been poulticed on cuts and wounds. Sweet woodruff is also used today as a laxative and ­antiarthritic. Research has shown that it kills bacteria and that one of its constituents, ­asperulide, reduces inflammation. Although a tea of the wilted or dried leaves is still used as a gentle tranquilizer, large quantities can cause dizziness and vomiting. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers sweet woodruff safe only in alcoholic beverages. (Coumarin, which is the source of its odor and which also occurs in melilot and many other plants, is well known as an anticoagulant. High doses, however, have caused liver damage, testicular atrophy, and cancer in laboratory ­animals.)

Other Uses For Sweet Woodruff

Sweet woodruff is probably best known as an ingredient of German May wine (see recipe below), which is traditionally drunk on May Day both to welcome the season and as a spring tonic. Since the Middle Ages, however, sweet woodruff has been used to flavor wines, brandies, and other beverages, jellies, sorbets, and fruit salads.

Coumarin confers its scent as well as fixative qualities to potpourris, snuffs, and perfumes. The dried leaves can scent sachets or sleep pillows or serve as a wreath backing.

Sweet woodruff makes an attractive ground cover under trees and at the base of shrubs. It’s also good as an accent plant, edging borders or walkways, or in crevices in paths, but it can’t withstand foot traffic. No space? Try it in a container filled with humusy potting mix. You may even grow it indoors in a dish garden or terrarium.

Growing Sweet Woodruff

Sweet woodruff is hardy in Zones 3 to 8 but struggles in the humid South. It prefers rich, loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic soil but tolerates both sandy and heavy, alkaline clay soils. Space new plants 12 inches apart in moderate to dense shade; full sun will scorch them. Plants grow fast and need little care aside from removing errant runners. Those grown outdoors will probably be free of pests or diseases, though some growers have reported damping-off of cuttings and aphids on plants in the greenhouse. If plants melt out in hot, humid weather, mow off the tops; they should revive when cooler weather returns. In cold climates where winter snows are not a certainty, apply a mulch in late fall. A light summer mulch may be useful in the South.

The easiest way to multiply established sweet woodruff plants is to section them into squares 3 to 4 inches on a side and plant them in fresh soil. Do this at any time; just keep them moist until they’re reestablished. Cuttings taken in the fall root rapidly if dipped in rooting hormone and placed in flats or pots over bottom heat. Sow freshly harvested seeds in a cold frame, but expect slow germination. Moist-chill purchased seeds for two to three weeks to encourage germination within four to six weeks after you remove them from the cold. Established plants will self-seed, but they’ll also spread.

May Wine

Steep sprigs of dried sweet woodruff and crushed strawberries (sweetened with sugar if tart) in white wine in the refrigerator overnight, then strain the wine and serve it in a punch bowl garnished with whole strawberries and fresh sweet woodruff sprigs.

Sources

• J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, Star Rt. 2, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020. Catalog $1. Seeds.
• Wayside Gardens, Hodges, SC 29695-0001. Catalog free. Plants.
• White Flower Farm, Plantsmen, PO Box 50, Litchfield, CT 06759-0050. Catalog free. Plants.


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