The Garden Sampler

A Newsletter for Hardy Northern Gardeners
PO Box 7, Peru, VT 05152

The ABC of Herbs:

The Sweet Scent of Sweet Woodruff


I love flowers and herbs that establish themselves readily in the garden, but one of my favorites is better suited to the woodland than the formal bed.

The beautiful sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, is a shade gardeners delight. Fast growing, quick to establish, beautiful, white spring flowers and attractive foliage through to snow, this treasure is seldom bothered by pest or disease. Its dried foliage has a sweet scent that has been described as a fresh-cut hay and vanilla fragrance, and it is used frequently in potpourri. It even used to be used as the stuffing for the winter mattress!

Don't put this flower in the perennial bed unless you want to spend a good deal of time pulling it up in the spring; it will take over quickly unless confined by pots or tiles buried in the garden soil. However, if you want a beautiful underplanting for your shady shrubs, this is the plant for you. Pair her with hydrangeas or rhododendrons and she will be in heaven.

Best of all, place her in the woodland, along a path or at the edge of the trees and let her amble along her own way. Sweet woodruff prefers a slightly acid soil pH of around 5.0, and loves moist, well-drained soil in the shade. As with other woodland plants, she likes rich, humus with lots of organic matter and dried leaves. Plant her under deciduous trees with just a bit of filtered sunlight and she will bloom her best. But she's not picky, she will take some sun as long as she doesn't dry out, and she will even grow well in full shade.

In addition to shrubs and trees, interplant woodruff with tall spring bulbs such as daffodils and tulips, an old-fashioned, spring-blooming bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), mid-summer's snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa) or a tall late-season perennial such as Ligularia dentata.

In the spring, cut back any old growth from the previous years to keep it full and healthy looking.

Sweet woodruff has a long herbal history for use in a variety of ailments, including liver problems and jaundice. A tea made from the leaves was used for stomach aches, and a poultice from the brewed, crushed leaves was applied to wounds to promote healing.

However, it is recommended very cautiously for internal use today. The Food and Drug Administration considers it only safe when taken in an alcoholic beverage, so its traditional use as an herb in May Wine is still okay. Many people flavor a bottle of white Rhine wine with a few of the crushed leaves overnight for a spring treat.

This plant has also long been used as an insect repellent, and it was scattered in sick rooms and root cellars to keep the air smelling sweet. Secure the dried leaves in muslin sacks and place in drawers, closets or the pantry. Or, sprinkle the dried leaves around the outside of windows and doors, and in your cellar.

You can also use woodruff as a natural plant dye; the leaves will produce a light brown dye, and the roots a light red (it is in the same family as madder) when used with alum as a mordant.

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Copyright 1997 by The Garden Sampler, PO Box 7, Peru, VT 05152 . All rights reserved.

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Last updated Feburary 1997