Herb to Know: Sweet Woodruff

| April/May 1996

  • Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

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.

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