Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
It bears many names and has been popular since time immemorial as a seasoning and medicinal plant in cooking and medicine: the Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum). Many people know the woodruff only from sherbet powder and jelly or as an ingredient of the famous Maibowle. But the spicy herb was already used in earlier times in a variety of products. For a long time the sweet woodruff held a prominent position in the round dance of medicinal plants in folk medicine. The large distribution area, the simple processing and a wide range of applications characterise the perennial plant. Due to its strong side effects, especially with wrong dosage, it is only used in small doses in recent times.
The woodruff, widespread in temperate climates, belongs to the rennet herbs (galium) of the reddish family (Rubiaceae). It grows mainly in the cool forest regions of Europe and Asia, preferably in beech forests, where it covers large light areas and grows about 15 to 60 centimeters wide and 20 to 30 centimeters high. It grows compactly and forms loose carpets covering the ground. The root excretions displace the weeds around the planting area.
The leaves of the forest master are narrow elliptical and stand in whorls around the stems. They sprout early and have a fresh green colour which they retain for a long time. The leaves smell aromatic, when dried they feel like paper.
Depending on its location, Sweet Woodruff flowers between April and June in small, white, star-shaped umbels. The plant is pollinated mainly by bees and some species of leaf and bedstraw moth.
The Sweet Woodruff ripen in midsummer from June to September. The only two to three millimeters small round part fruits are provided with long bristles, which can hold on to fur, clothes and plumage as velcro-fruits. Thus the seeds of this plant are spread over long distances.
Location and soil
Sweet Woodruff is a forest plant. It loves calcareous, humus-rich, loose soil and half-shady to shady places under trees. If you want to grow woodruff in the garden or on the balcony, you should also choose a shady location and water the plant generously. The substrate should be loose, permeable and nutritious. Woodruff is winter-hardy.
If you want to attract woodruff over seeds, you have to spread the cold germ in winter. Sow in flat trays with growing soil or herb soil and place the containers outdoors protected from rain and snow. The soil must be kept evenly moist until germination. In spring you can prick the plants into small pots and later plant them on the spot. Direct sowing is less time-consuming, but only possible in weed-free soil.
Planting and care
Young woodruff plants that have been grown by themselves or preferred in the herb nursery are planted out in spring. At the right location, the plant reproduces itself through its fine rhizomes and forms large carpets over the years. Especially in the garden this can lead to an unwanted spread of the frost hardy plant, so you should always keep a close eye on the woodruff! On hot days the woodruff should be watered regularly. Woodruff is harvested directly before or during flowering in early summer. Cut off the stems above the ground, spray the plant briefly, dab dry and use either fresh or dried. In autumn the plant is slowly moving in. Then a protective layer of leaves can be piled up over the winter.
Use in garden and kitchen
In the garden, the half-height woodruff shrub is mainly used in the herb garden and for planting borders. In addition, Waldmeister is an ideal ground cover for shady, humus-rich garden areas under trees and shrubs. Once planted, the perennial with its thin, subterranean crawling rhizomes spreads by itself. It should not be missing in natural gardens, because it is an important food plant for the caterpillars of various moths.
The typical woodruff aroma develops through chemical processes only when the plants are dried. Responsible for the smell is the large quantity of Cumarin (approximately one per cent of the dry mass), which can lead with overdose to dizziness and headache up to liver damage. In low doses, however, Waldmeister has anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, vasodilatory and calming effects and is therefore used in folk medicine and homeopathy. Only whole leaves are used – do not cut the woodruff into small pieces! Woodruff tea is used hot or cold in moderation especially against headaches and migraines. Used externally, fresh woodruff leaves should support wound healing. The rennet ferment contained is used as an acidifier for cheese production. If you only want to enjoy the typical woodruff scent, you can use dried woodruff together with sage or lavender to make a fragrant filling for scented cushions that also keeps moths away.
If you want to reproduce woodruff in a targeted way, you can share older plants in spring or autumn. For this purpose, several plants including roots are stabbed with a hand shovel.
Diseases and pests
The forest plant is extremely robust and has practically no natural enemies. If the growth is poor, the location and soil quality should be checked.
Well-known dishes and drinks with Sweet Woodruff seasoning are products imported to the United States from Germany: Maibowle, Berliner Weiße, Limonade, Brause, Eis and Götterspeise. Most industrially used Waldmeister flavours are based on chemically produced 6-methyl coumarin. Due to the controversial effect, however, the maximum levels in foodstuffs are now strictly regulated. The flavouring of sweets and lemonade for children with coumarin is now prohibited in the United States. Pregnant women should do without woodruff altogether. By the way: The well-known bright green colour of Waldmeister products does not come from the plant, but from artificially added colouring. Freshly prepared woodruff syrup is colourless.