Wednesday, May 18, 2016


(Galium odoratum)

Traditionally used to flavor May wine poured over fresh strawberries in Germany to welcome the arrival of spring, sweet woodruff is native to Europe and also known as Master of the Forest.  “Woodruff” comes from the French ravelle, meaning wheel in reference to the leaves growing around the stem like spokes. Galium comes from the Greek gala for “milk” since the leaves were once used to curdle milk and odoratum is Latin for “fragrant,” since crushed the leaves have the odor of new-mown hay and vanilla which actually intensifies as the leaves dry.  Sweet woodruff has also been hung in bunches in springtime in homes and churches as well as strewn on the floor to give off its scent since Medieval times.  The back of pocket watches in the 18th century even held sweet woodruff leaves that scented the air when it was opened.

A shade gardener’s delight, sweet woodruff thrives in full or semi-shade in a slightly acidic, loamy, well-drained soil and is also very cold-hardy.  Fast growing and quick to establish, it typically grows 8”-12” and has whorls of stiff, glossy green leaves with rough margins which are attractive all season.  It flowers in mid spring with clusters of tiny, white star-shaped blooms, which have a delicious vanilla-like fragrance and produce seeds with tiny hooked bristles which catch onto fur or feathers and are dispersed by self seeding as well as their creeping roots.  Where necessary it can be mowed back especially in spring or frequently pinched back to keep it low and bushy.  It is great for under-planting shrubs, along woodland edges or plant in a container of humus soil for an indoor dish garden or terrariumThe larvae of numerous butterfly and moth species use the plants as a food source.  Easily propagated by root division in spring or fall, cutting can also be rooted in moist sand, but seeds are slow to germinate.  It can be harvested the second year by clipping to hang dry for crafts or the leaves may be placed in a flower press as they blend well with all flowers.

In wines, brandies and jellies, the leaves of sweet woodruff may be used as a flavoring and the sweet-scented edible flowers used as a garnish for sorbets and fruit salads or to float in drinks.  You can also use it as a natural plant dye since the leaves produce a light brown and the roots a light red when used with alum as a mordant.  When it is dried, the leaves smell like freshly-mown vanilla grass which is excellent in sachets for clothes, linens and potpourri.  Sweet woodruff maintains its scent for years due to the chemical coumarin which is also used commercially as a fixative for soothing perfumes that promote serenity.  Mixed with fodder, it even gives cow’s milk a delicious aroma!

Two other members of the Galium genus are Yellow Bedstraw (Galium verum) and Stickywilly (Galium aparine).  Yellow bedstraw or lady’s bedstraw has yellow flowers and provided a pleasant smelling stuffing for mattresses in medieval times.  Dyers use the roots for red dye and the tops for yellow dye. 

Stickywilly is an annual which is also called cleavers, goosegrass, catchweed and coachweed since the leaves, stems and seeds all stick like velcro to animals or clothing, ensuring the plant’s wide dispersal.  The seeds have been used as a coffee substitute, the stems used as a strainer and the whole plant used to stuff bedding.

Sweet woodruff is an ideal carpet for tall spring bulbs
such as daffodils and tulips to grow through
or plant in crevices or between flagstones along paths
but it does not withstand foot traffic

May Wine Punch
1 gallon white grape juice
6-8 sprigs sweet woodruff
1 lg can lemonade
1 lg pkg frozen strawberries
1 bottle ginger ale
               Steep sweet woodruff in heated grape juice for 5 minutes, strain and add lemonade and frozen strawberries and mix well.  Chill overnight. Add ginger ale and serve in punch bowl with sliced fresh strawberries, sliced orange and fresh sweet woodruff in an ice ring.

May Jelly
1/3c fresh sweet woodruff
2c white grape juice
3c sugar
rind of 1 orange
2tsp lemon juice
3oz liquid pectin
               Bring juice to a boil, pour over herbs and steep 30 mins.  Strain and return to pan, add sugar, orange rind and lemon juice.  Boil until sugar dissolves, stir in pectin and boil 1 minute.  Cool slightly, skim off foam, and pour into jars and water-process for 10 mins.
“. . .All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord stands forever.
. .”
I Peter 24-25

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