Bernhard FeistelA gentle plea for woodruff

When I was a boy, woodruff lemonade (and May bowle for the grown ups) was beloved by many of us, particularly on hot summer days in the public swimming pool.

Woodruff, Galium odoratum, edges the path

Until, that is, Galium odoratum received the stigma of being carcinogenic and was being prohibited. The ingredient coumarin was thought to be the culprit, but even after its (though half-hearted) rehabilitation, Coca Cola and its cousins, together with their accepted side effects, now reign supreme.

Last year I used Galium odoratuma lot in the herb garden as a repeated-theme-plant but it can equally be effective in the borders as a low and pleasant ground cover, or for edging. It spreads quickly, yet not all too aggressively, swings around the ankles and knees of taller plants and, at least in milder winters, can be around for most parts of the year.

Light green, dainty woodruff as path edging

Otherwise it returns early in spring and will soon enliven the scene as a flowering carpet. Tulips or other bulbs will find their way through it. It can easily be divided and even withstands rather intense (middle European) sunshine, although it prefers shady positions. The literal German translation “wood master” speaks for itself. In general, it seems better to use it under shrubs or more woody and robust plants. Some younger neighbouring plants in the borders might need some attention during their beginning. In any case, disentangling the woodruff now and then gives new material which is useful if one happens to garden in a greater area, or is in need of May wine ingredients. If well dried, you can also use it to stuff pillows to enjoy a scent reminiscent of hay and vanilla. The aroma comes out better when the herb has been dried.

Woodruff fronts a mixed border in April (spring)

Amazingly, woodruff has the particular reputation of releasing a certain substance via its roots which effectively restrains smaller weeds, yet doesn’t seem to attack their larger neighbours. So far I can confirm this.

Isn’t it wonderful when one can let plants do the weeding themselves and interfere only now and then removing the odd dandelion? When I am planting new borders I also use woodruff as a quick filler, not necessarily meant to stay for ever but in order to cover the soil relatively quickly to prevent birds, or even straying chickens, to fancy the area too much.

By mid-June, other plants become dominant

This year I am instigating a cock fight between woodruff and the infamous ground elder in a selected corner and am already excited to find out who might win. And would the winner take all? Not that I belong to the cry wolf brigade with regard to ground elder: I rather nibble it now and then while weeding and, if it starts to overwhelm, I pick the leaves for a ground elder lasagne, as a welcome change after the dandelion salad. But this should be left for another thread under the headline “if you can’t beat them, eat them”!

Recipe for Maibowle (a classic German drink traditionally served in early May):

2 bunches sweet woodruff (include stems, flowers and leaves) [1 bunch = 1 handful]

200g sugar

Juice of 1 orange

Juice of 1 lemon

3 bottles light, dry, white wine (e.g. Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Riesling etc)

500ml soda or dry champagne

Thoroughly wash the woodruff, then dry, before crushing lightly and placing in a small glass or ceramic bowl. Set aside to wilt for several hours, until the greens are nearly dry. Now mix the woodruff with 5 tbsp sugar, the orange juice and enough wine to dissolve the sugar. Cover and set aside to stand in a cool place for 2 hours.

Add the remaining sugar along with 1 bottle of wine and the lemon juice. Cover the bowl and set aside to stand in a cool place until needed (anywhere between 6 hours and over night).

When ready to serve strain the mixture then pour the liquid into a serving pitcher and add the remainder of the wine. Immediately before serving stir in soda or champagne.

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Bernhard Feistel

About Bernhard Feistel

Gardener and academic in rural England and sometimes also in his native Saxony, Germany; special interest in herb, maze and wildflower meadow designing and gardening. Norfolk, UK

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