Galium odoratum – Sweet Woodruff
Galium odoratum – Sweet Woodruff. (Rubiaceae) . A british native that really earns its place in a shady spot. It will quickly form an open carpet of bright green whorled foliage, enlivened in Spring with brightest white starry flowers. The leaves when crushed are said to smell of newly made hay. Its an undemanding plant that performs brilliantly in the sort of dry shaded situations that can be troublesome to fill.
Honey produced by bees feeding on the nectar of this plant has been reported to have effects similar to Manuka Honey, but as to what evidence there is to back this up I cannot say.
Whilst sweet woodruff is a relative of cleavers and the bedstraws, its habit is not at all rambling. The stems are short, up to 30cm tall, and quite erect. Each stem carries whorls of up to eight narrow leaves which are a lovely glossy dark green when the plant grows in shade and are topped with small branched heads (dichasial cymes) of purest white starry flowers. The leaves will tend to pale out if the plant receives too much sun.
The leaves are said to smell of fresh hay when crushed. This is due to the presence of coumarins in the tissues, a compound that is used frequently in the perfume industry both for its own fragrance but also to fix the smell of other compounds and to mask certain unpleasant smells, especially iodoform. The leaves can be used be used in pot-pourri and in some fancy snuffs. The leaves were much used in the Middle Ages in church, especially on St Barnabas Day.
The leaves are useful to keep with linen to keep away insects, especially moths.
In Europe woodruff is used to flavour wine, known as May Cups, drunk on the first day of May. This is particularly the case in Germany where it is added to wines grown around the Rhine. The drink is then known as Maibowle.
Woodruff grows throughout The British Isles and Europe, especially on damp lime rich soils
The common name could have one of a couple of derivations. It could derive from the AngloSaxon ‘wudurofe’ from ‘wudu’=wood and ‘rofe’ of unknown origin. Alternatively it may have been ‘Wuderove’ and later ‘Wood-rove’, the ‘rove’ deriving from the French ‘rovelle’ – a wheel, in allusion to the spoked leaf arrangement. Galium comes from the Greek ‘gala’=milk. Lady’s bedstraw (Galium vernum) was used to curdle milk.
Some herbalists used to spell the name ‘Woodderowffe’, a name that used to be remembered in a childrens rhyme. (say each letter in order)
W O O D D E, R O W F F E.
Galium odoratum (Asperula odorata) – Sweet Woodruff, Wuderove, Wood-rova, Muge-de-boys.