Ever since Jayme Jenkins introduced me to May Wine, I’d had my eye open for sweet woodruff to add to our garden. It sounded so old-timey and perfect, an edible perennial ground cover that loves dappled shade. I had just the spot for it.
Pouring over Flower Mart’s incredible herb selection I spotted the marker, “Sweet Woodruff.” Reaching over the table, I stopped short, its starry little umbrella leaves I’d seen so many times before, through which I’d picked looking for snails and crawlies for the toddler in our own backyard.
I looked over the little pot to make sure, and put it back completely positive that, indeed, Michelle had planted it many seasons ago. Michelle lived in the apartment next door and established our building’s backyard garden a few hours at a time, salvaging it from decades of low-rent neglect. We co-gardened the last few years, her in the garden beds and me in pots up our stairs. As her gardening time dwindled I took over the tending. She moved last fall and I’ve taken over.
And the sweet woodruff had long taken over its little protected patch under the camellia. I remember her pointing to that patch of lovely green saying there was concrete just a few inches below the surface and not much else would grow there. I just don’t remember what she was growing there.
Super yay all around! The Herb Companion’s sweet woodruff entry lists medicinal uses to treat kidney and liver disorders, nervousness, heart irregularities and a host of additional maladies. Good Earth Natural Foods gives an additional rundown. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers it only safe in alcoholic beverages.
For growing sweet woodruff, The Washington Star Garden Book (my copy is from 1988) entry lists:
Soil: moist, acid soil
Propagate: transplant divisions in spring or fall, root cuttings in the spring
Plant: 4 – 6 inches apart
Height: 6 inches
Harvest: flower umbrellas and new leaves for May wine
Plants needed: as many pots as needed for ground cover
In The Complete Book of Herbs, Lesley Bremness explains
This pretty little woodland plant will, when added to a wine cup, “make a man merrie,” wrote Gerard. Sweet-smelling garlands of woodruff were hung in churches, strewn on domestic floors, sprinkled into potpourri and linen and stuffed into mattresses, spreading its cordiality around the household. The coumarin in the leaves develops its sweet hay scent only when the plant is dried, so sweet woodruff is invaluable from the appearance of its first flowers for the traditional German May Bowl punch, through Christmas, when it is used in herb pillows.
That its scent isn’t released until dried is an understatement. I can’t smell anything off the fresh cut sprigs, but I leave them in a bowl under a cloth napkin for a few days and - magically – the most pleasant aroma you can imagine wafts up. A direct comparison doesn’t come to mind, but it’s slightly sweet, with a hint of anise, the tinest front of mountain mint and rises wonderfully airy and fresh.
Reading that sweet woodruff helps repel bugs from linens is music to my ears. I’ve sprinkled our house with ground cloves for nearly a year in a slow fight against carpet beetles, now I can add sweet woodruff to my baseboard and under-bed carpet sprinkle.
Ah, sweet woodruff, I can not wait to make little gift sachets with you for friends and drink you in maiwein with friends.