Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff (galium odoratum) grows in the woods gardens and does well in shaded conditions. I love the delicate low-growing foliage and in late spring it bears tiny white star-shaped flowers.

Woodruff spreads gently and can be used as ground cover, providing lush carpet-like growth under trees in spaces where little else will grow.  Woodruff is particularly good for camouflaging the fading foliage of early spring bulbs such as snowdrop, grape hyacinth, etc.

“In the late spring, the edges of beech woods are often thickly carpeted with the young shoots of woodruff, immaculate in their tiny marble-white flowers and brisk green ruffs.  When they are green the plants are almost odourless; but allow them to dry and they quickly develop the cool, fresh smell of new-mown hay.  Indeed, the plant was once popular for scenting dried linen and laying in beds.”

Maibowle – The classic woodruff recipe is for Maibowle or Maiwein, traditionally drunk in Germany on May Day.  Steep a bunch of dried woodruff in a jug of Moselle wine.  Add a couple of tablespoons of sugar dissolved in water.  Chill, and serve with thinly sliced orange.  (Mabey, Food for Free, p.162)

But be warned!  Do NOT use sweet woodruff in any other way than as above, steeped in wine, as it can be toxic.  Alternative safer uses include using dried plants for scenting linen closets.

Plant Mythology

Sweet Woodruff is occasionally called Fragrant Bedstraw or Our Lady’s Bedstraw, for in Catholic mythology it becomes sacred to the Virgin Mary. It was hung in medieval churches on holidays not only because of sacred associations, but to disguise the odor of the unwashed congregation.

Its sacredness to Mary & the idea that she used this herb to sweeten the bedding of her newborn infant is surely a myth coopted from a pagan age. It is no coincidence that the above-mentioned “May Wine” with tincture of Sweet Woodruff is still important to modern pagans, who imbibe such wine at Beltaine (May Day) to honor the Mother & Father of the woods. In Germany the plant is called Waldermeister, “Master of the Woods,” an allusion to the Green Man, consort or fertility daemon of the Great Mother. This Great Mother is sometimes acknowledged as Maia, Goddess of Spring, for whom May is named, & whose sacred son was Hermes/Mercury, in Christian myth coopted as Daystar, a name for Jesus [2 Peter 1:19; Revelations 2:28; 22:16].  (Cf Paghat the Rat Girl’s Garden Blog)