This little British native ground-cover herb has rapidly spread itself around my peonies and lilac tree, with its tiny white flowers and starry whorls of leaves. It is called sweet woodruff, and though the fresh leaves don’t have a scent, the dried leaves smell of new mown hay. This is probably why they were associated with St Barnabas, whose feast day on 11 June was when when haysel (haymaking) traditionally began, and the saint is often pictured carrying a hay rake: Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright/ Light all day and light all night.
The generic name comes from the Greek word gala meaning ‘milk’, because a special of this plant was once used for curdling milk, but the second part of its name, odoratum, is Latin for ‘fragrant’. Its French name, musc de bois, translates as ‘wood musk’. Even today, extracts of sweet woodruff are used in perfumes. The lovely scent of the dried plant was also responsible for many of its uses in the past – as a strewing herb, scattered among linen (where it also deters insects and moths), hung in garlands and used as potpourri, as well as for stuffing mattresses and pillows; legend even had it that the Virgin Mary made her bed from it. The sweet scent comes from the essential oil coumarin, contained in the leaves. Do try hanging it in your wardrobe, or putting sachets of the dried herb in your linen closet to deter moths, and it makes a fragrant, soporific herb pillow. In potpourri it will sweetly scent any room. The dried leaves placed in enclosed bookcases or between the pages of books will prevent a musty odour developing in them. Woodruff is used in incenses because of its own pleasant, joyful smell and because of its ability to fix other scents.
During the Middle Ages it was commonly used in herbal medicine, applied to wounds and cuts, or taken internally for digestive complaints. Herbalists today may use it for its tonic, diuretic and anti-inflammatory effects. A tea of the leaves and flowers is calming and sedative, and may help insomnia and nervous tension. The coumarin contained in the dried plant acts to prevent the clotting of blood, and the plant is grown commercially to make an anticoagulant drug. The plant is harvested just before or as it comes into flower and can be dried for later use.
The plant is edible, and in Germany it is used to flavour May Bowl (I gave the recipe for this in a previous post), but it can also be used to flavour punches, liqueurs, beers, brandy jam and ice cream, or infuse the leaves as a calming herbal tea. A fragrant and delicious tea is made from the green-dried leaves and flowers. Slightly wilted leaves are used, the tea has a fresh, grassy flavour. The sweet-scented flowers are eaten or used as a garnish.
A red dye is obtained from the root. Soft-tan and grey-green dyes are obtained from the stems and leaves.
It is said to be lucky to carry woodruff leaves, and will bring victory, reward and prosperity.
CAUTION: The plant is generally considered safe in food amounts. It is generally safe when used in medicinal amounts in the short term, but must not be taken longer term in or excessive amounts, or it may cause headaches, dizziness, blackouts, and possibly liver damage. The FDA has banned it for use in herbal remedies to be taken internally but specifically clears it for use when properly prepared as an additive to wine. Avoid if you are taking medicine for circulatory problems or have bleeding disorders as sweet woodruff contains certain chemicals that might slow blood clotting, and might increase bruising and bleeding in people with bleeding disorders. Also avoid for two weeks before surgery. Avoid if you are pregnant.
© Anna Franklin, 20.5.20