(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 31, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Sweet woodruff and other Galiums are members of the madder or Rubiaceae family, and native to temperate zones throughout the northern and southern hemispheres. The Galium genus includes over 600 species, most of which are known as bedstraw. Galium is closely related to the Asperula family, and in fact plants are sometimes interchangeably categorized. The larvae of numerous butterfly and moth species use the plants as a food source.
Although most kinds of Galium are weedy growers you would not invite into your border, sweet woodruff is beloved by many gardeners for its fragrance and willingness to grow in shady spots. Native to Europe, northern Africa and northern Asia, the plant is also sometimes called sweetscented bedstraw. Christian tradition refers to sweet woodruff as “our lady’s lace” or “our lady’s bedstraw,” since by traditional belief it was among the plants scenting and cushioning the Christ Child’s manger.
In the spring when it is in bloom, sweet woodruff can reach from 6 to 8 inches in height, but later in the season it is only about 4 inches high. When crushed or cut, the leaves emit a scent reminiscent of freshly-mown hay. Like others of the bedstraws, the narrow leaves are arranged in whorls. The square stems hold up six to eight leaves like tiny umbrellas. The tiny, white star-shaped blooms, which have a delicious vanilla-like fragrance, appear in mid-spring. Foliage is bright green when it first emerges, becoming a darker green later in the summer.
Sweet woodruff, hardy in zones 4 through 8, is easily grown in moist, well-drained soil. Spreading by both underground roots and by self-seeding, it quickly forms a thick mat. The plant may die back and go dormant in the summer if located in a spot that is too hot and dry.
Besides being useful in low light situations, sweet woodruff makes an attractive ground cover and looks right at home in herb and rock gardens. You might also try it as an edging plant, or tuck it in the crevices of a patio or walkway. The plant is rarely damaged by deer. Sweet woodruff can even serve as a kind of living mulch for trees, shrubs and sturdy perennials such as astilbe.
When planted in a location that suits it, sweet woodruff can become aggressive. Because the plant’s roots are shallow, it is fairly easy to yank out what you don’t want. You can even mow it with the blades set high. Judging by DG members' comments on Galium odoratum, people seem to either love or hate sweet woodruff. Should you decide to plant it, give careful thought to its placement, and keep an eye on its spread, particularly after it has had a year or so to get comfortable in your garden.
“The flowers are of a very sweet smell as is the rest of the herb, which, being made into garlands and bundles, and hanged up in houses in the heat of summer, doth very well attemper the air, cool and make fresh the place, to the delight and comfort of such as are therein. It is reported to be put into wine, to make a man merry...”
John Gerard, 17th century English herbalist
Because sweet woodruff’s scent grows even stronger when the leaves are dried, this herb has historically been used in sachets and potpourris. Dried leaves were used to stuff mattresses and placed in closets and drawers to keep moths away from clothing or linens. In medieval times, sweet woodruff was hung or strewn in churches on Whitsunday and Saint Barnabas Day. It was also used as a poultice for wounds and administered as a decoction to treat stomach problems.
In Germany, where sweet woodruff is known as “waldmeister” or “master of the woods,” the plant’s leaves lend a distinctive flavor to “Maiwein” or May wine. The leaves are steeped in a white wine such as Riesling; often brandy, sparkling wine, sugar and fruit are added to create a punch intended to welcome the arrival of spring.
Coumarin, the chemical responsible for the pleasant odor of sweet woodruff, has long been used as a fixative in perfumes, as well as a flavor-enhancing ingredient in tobaccos. Because of coumarin’s moderate toxicity, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans its use as a food additive, however it is specifically cleared for use “in alcoholic beverages only.” 1
Other Galiums: Yellow Bedstraw and Stickywilly
Commonly known species besides Galium odoratum include the yellow-flowered Galium verum, also called yellow bedstraw or lady's bedstraw. This low-growing perennial is native to Europe and Asia, where it scrambles over roadsides and dry banks. In medieval times, yellow bedstraw provided a pleasant-smelling stuffing for mattresses. Dyers have long harvested the plant for the red dye yielded from the roots and yellow dye from the tops of the plant. In Britain, Galium verum was used to curdle milk and provide color to Double Gloucestershire cheese.
Another member of the family, the annual Galium aparine, is native to Eurasia and North America, where it is found in most Canadian provinces and every U.S. state except Hawaii. Among its many nicknames are stickywilly, stickyweed, stickyleaf, cleavers, goosegrass, catchweed and coachweed. In Ireland, where it is widespread, Galium aparine is called robin-run-the-hedge. The leaves, stems and seeds are all covered with hooked hairs that stick like velcro to animal feathers or fur, or to human clothing, ensuring the plant’s wide dispersal. Native Americans used stickywilly to treat dermatitis and other maladies. The seeds have been used as a coffee substitute, the stems used as a strainer for milk and other liquids, and the whole plant used to stuff bedding.
1 U.S. Government Printing Office: Food and Drug Administration - Food Additives Permitted For Direct Addition To Food For Human Consumption (21 CFR 172.510)
Botanical.com: Woodruff, Sweet
U.S. Forest Service: Galium Aparine