Wednesday Weed – Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff (Gallium odoratum)

Dear Readers, I bought some sweet woodruff because I thought it would be perfect for the shady side of the garden. It was lovingly planted, watered and tended, and within about three days it had practically disappeared, with no sign of obvious nibbling. On the other hand, my good friend A has banks of the stuff in her garden, and so I know that the local conditions are not the problem. Still, that’s gardening for you, a succession of small disasters and happy accidents. If you have any illusions that you’re in control, I suggest you get a garden. It certainly put me right.

Anyhow, sweet woodruff is a really delightful plant. It’s a member of the bedstraw family (Rubiaceae), and is a plant of ancient woodland, with leaves that are said to be hay or vanilla-scented when bruised. It’s native to the UK but grows in a great swathe across Europe and Asia all the way to Japan, taking in Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus en route. In German it’s known as ‘waldmeister‘ or ‘Master of the Woods’ which seems a bit martial for this delicate beauty. It’s also known as ‘Wild Baby’s Breath’ – I assume that the ‘wild’ refers to the plant, not the baby (or indeed the breath).

As you might expect for something so sweet-smelling, sweet woodruff has been used for a variety of purposes. The sweet smell lingers on after the plant is dried, so it has often been used in pot pourri and cosmetics. It seems to have been particularly favoured as a flavouring in Germany, where it’s used in May Wine (Maitrank), an alcoholic beverage traditionally served on May Day. Maitrank involves steeping sweet woodruff in white wine, and very refreshing it looks too.

Photo One by By Dr. Bernd Gross - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

German May Wine (Photo One)

The plant was also used to flavour beer (Berliner Weisse), ice cream, brandy and a Georgian soft drink called Tarhun. It was used to flavour sherbet powder, though in the UK I’m sure we’re all much more familiar with the zesty lemon-flavoured substance that used to be eaten with a liquorice stick. Alas, the substance that gives woodruff its flavour is called coumarine, and in 1974 the Germans banned its use in products for children because it was found to cause liver damage (and children, being smaller, are more susceptible). Adults can still lay their hands on sweet woodruff-flavoured alcohol, but artificial substitutes are now used in sweets.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how dried woodruff was hung in wardrobes and laid amongst stored linen to deter moths. The leaf whorls were apparently used as bookmarks, and during Georgian times the leaves were placed in the cases of pocket-watches, so that the user could inhale their fragrance whenever they needed to tell the time. Mabey reports that woodruff no longer grows wild in London, but that it was once hung in churches on St Barnabas Day, the 11th June. And a turning close to the Tower of London, now called Cooper’s Row, was once called Woodruff Lane.

And finally, a poem. A few posts back, I wrote about friendship, and how it’s undervalued in our society compared with the love we feel for family and romantic partners. This feels like an intensely personal poem, and yet it made me think of so many of my female friends, past and present, and the things that we’d shared. See what you think.

Up, Over the Steep Hill
by Kathleen Ripley Leo

‘May we strive to touch and to know the great common woman’s heart of us all…’ Mary Stuart

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
whose laughter you hear in the night
ringing in your ears: over your elaborate strategy to lose weight;
over the grand joke you keep to yourselves;
over swearing her to secrecy for driving you
to the Secretary of State when you’re late renewing.

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
whose baby daughter crawls through your dining room
looking for all the world
like a pink shell on the carpet, she moves so sweetly;
whose son shares his bike lock with your son at school,
the son she cheers on to win the race, to make the grade,
to stay alive one more day in the isolette.

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
whose hostas and phlox bloom in your garden;
with whom you kneel and pray for peace;
with whom you silently walk in the woods
hoping the raccoon, sunning itself
on the branch overhead, does not wake up,
hoping the deer in the clearing does not bound away,
who watches with you, both apprehensive and in awe,
as two snakes curl and dance in the sun
on the cement pavement at Maybury;
who takes care of the cat, the mail, the paper,
the broken ground between your houses,
picking you up at the side of the road
when you’ve locked your keys in the car,
quelling the shaking wings of your heart.

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
who has lunch with you after the angel tour at the Art Institute;
who helps you overcome your panic attack at the mall,
or on that crowded street in Washington DC,
or at that Brighton home tour;
who asks you to write your poems and to read them outloud;
who helps you pick out glasses to fit your odd and funny face;
who carefully tends to the basil parmesan bread,
so you can take it to your progressive dinner party
and claim you made it;
who washes your clothes in her machine when yours gives out.

Catch her by the waist, a woman friend,
who tells you what happened to the bank of sweet woodruff you dug out
the spring your father died, because in the fall
you couldn’t remember doing that;
who tells you how to think about toxic criticism;
who helps you cope with aggressive jealousy;
who drives you to the hospital when your baby needs x-rays,
and then when your husband’s there;
who drives you to the doctor for the procedure,
and carefully holds you when you cry;
who sees your letters unanswered,
and your invitations refused, sees your hurt and stays quiet;
who catches your waist, too, and together, laughing and crying,
you pull each other up, over the steep hill.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Dr. Bernd Gross – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

4 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Sweet Woodruff

  1. Anne

    Gardening is not for the faint-hearted and so I adopt the ‘wild and free’ approach by allowing things to grow where they choose; to keep planting seeds and seedlings; and have long since given up trying to match the real outcome with the projected image on the seed packets. The poem you have chosen is a lovely one.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      So true about gardening! On the other hand I planted some seeds on Sunday and they are already an inch high (don’t ask me what species, I planted a lot of packets that have been hanging around for ages and so I can’t remember). It will be a nice surprise to see what they actually are!

      1. Anne

        As soon as we get rain I intend to mix my packets of seeds and scatter them all in the hope of some of them germinating. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised by yours 🙂

  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Like Anne, we, well Jude is more of a ‘wild and free’ gardener. Most of our ‘proper’ plants are in pots or hanging baskets. I think the only thing we have planted in the garden is daffodils (small and large varieties) to bring a bit of English or perhaps Welshness to the Swiss alps.


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