Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The January Garden - Sweet Woodruff

I have fallen in love with Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum, a.k.a. Asperula odorata). Here in the heart of winter, Sweet Woodruff is looking greener, healthier and more beautiful than ever. The winter coloration (purpling) of some leaves just adds to the beauty for me.

I guess normal gardeners love roses, daylilies, viburnums, azaleas and rhododendrons.

Me? I fell in love with a groundcover - Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum, also known as Asperula odorata.

The Internet is full of interesting information about this plant:

Living in Season notes that in Germany (where the plant is called Waldmeister or "Master of the Woods"), fragrant dried sprigs are used to flavor May Wine. But that killjoy FDA has nixed consumption of Sweet Woodruff due to the fact that the plant contains a chemical called coumarin.

Now I'm neither a lawyer, nor a chemist nor a doctor. (I don't even play any of those roles on TV.) So I'm not going to even attempt to tell you whether or not it's safe, legal or smart to use Sweet Woodruff to flavor your wine. Do your own research. Consult with experts. Make your conclusions.

But it does seem to be perfectly safe (near as I can tell) to dry Sweet Woodruff sprigs and use them for potpourri or air freshener. I haven't tried that yet, but perhaps I will do so this year.

Just another shot of beautiful Sweet Woodruff foliage, which is supposedly fragrant when dried. I like the greens and the purples. I like it all. There is something here that reminds of me of both snowflakes and fractals.

Some folks say that Sweet Woodruff can be aggressive. That has not been my experience (yet) but I can see how eventually it might overtake particularly small or retiring competitors. But Sustainable Gardening (which has a beautiful photo of a whole bed of Sweet Woodruff) notes that the plant is rather delicate and can be easily uprooted, kept in bounds and otherwise controlled. Sustainable Gardening also points out that the low-growing Sweet Woodruff (mine can't be taller than 4-6 inches at most, though some sources insist it can grow up to 12-inches tall) is no threat to bushes, shrubs or tall perennials.

See the little sprout of Sweet Woodruff poking through the soil on the left-hand side of the photo. Sweet Woodruff will spread, but the new plants pop up near the mother plant and I've found the plant easy to control / uproot if necessary. In fact, I wish it would spread faster! (As always, YMMV depending on climate, soil, rainfall, etc.)

Now Mother Earth Living warns that Sweet Woodruff will struggle in the hot and humid South. That hasn't been my experience at all. I planted Sweet Woodruff last spring, just before a long, hot and dry summer. And when I say "hot", I'm talking record heat (110+ degrees Fahrenheit). It's true, I did give this plant partial shade (its natural environment is woodlands after all), but my Sweet Woodruff still got fairly intense sun all morning during the summer in its east-facing foundation bed. That's maybe 6 hours of sun, which would be considered 'full sun' in some books.

And yet, the plant performed like a champ. It didn't grow much, but it didn't wither or croak either. It just kind of hunkered down and stayed green and pretty. A couple of stems might have browned and died, but the overall effect was undiminished. This is a tough cookie. But if I were to do it again, I'd suggest Southern gardeners plant Sweet Woodruff in the fall, since a new plant that I added to the landscape in autumn seems to be getting off to a much better start than the one I threw into the deep end of a long hot Tennessee summer.

Anyway, cooler weather came eventually. Lows in the low-20s recently. Highs sometimes only in the 30s. But Sweet Woodruff is hardy to zone 4. That means it should be able to handle lows in the negative-30 Fahrenheit range. 20 above freezing is just a walk in the park. Which might be why my Sweet Woodruff, which looked fine in July, now looks positively cheerful.

(I should say it looks mostly cheerful. Certain stems do appear dead or damaged, especially on the smaller plants that I divided or planted this autumn. But even those have very healthy-looking new foliage emerging from underground, so I'm fairly confident that they'll be fine come springtime and may even benefit from a haircut.)

Where Sweet Woodruff waited out the summer, it is now growing and expanding in the middle of winter. When I redid the front foundation this summer, I transplanted the Sweet Woodruff a bit closer to the front of the bed, where it would be more visible. At that time, I divided the plant and replanted the offset nearby. And I also planted a new Sweet Woodruff plant that I'd ordered through the mail from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek.

The Sweet Woodruff I bought and planted just a couple of months ago from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek. The 'mama' plant is still pretty small, but look how much she's already spreading to the right with shallow stolons and pretty little rosettes popping up - and this is in heavy clay with a light scattering of mulch on top!

All three plants are doing great now. The one from Gardens in the Wood in particular is expanding and scouting out new territory even though the central clump is still pretty small. And I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing a show of white blossoms that Paghat says should make an appearance in April and May.

So to recap, it's not flashy or showy, but I think Sweet Woodruff deserves to be planted in far more gardens. Here's why:

1. Evergreen (so far, in zone 6/7, during a winter with temps close to average, lows in the 20s, highs in the 30s and 40s)

2. Nicely spreading - clearly desirable in a groundcover - but not overly aggressive.

3. Interesting and beautifully whorled foliage, which can supposedly be cut back to stimulate regrowth. Haven't tried that yet, but will report back when/if I do make that experiment.

4. Flowers (reportedly) in spring that are supposed to attract butterflies and bees, according to Agweek (which agrees with me that Sweet Woodruff is "one of the best groundcovers")

5. Fragrance (reportedly, of dried branches). Also haven't tried this yet, but will report back when/if I do.

6. Suppresses / controls weeds, which makes a gardener's life more carefree and lighthearted!

Do you grow Sweet Woodruff in your garden? If so, please post your experiences in the Comments section below!

Curious to see if my love affair with Sweet Woodruff will last? Want to know whether Sweet Woodruff will flower and if the scent of the dried sprigs really is as good as everyone says? Stay tuned with email updates.

30 comments:

  1. I don't grow Sweet Woodruff but I agree with you that it's beautiful!

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    1. Thanks Christy. Any particular reason that you haven't grown it yet?

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    2. I have very little shade. Most of what I do have I've "made" by planting tall bushes. Once the bushes mature I plant a few things on the North and East side them. This way the shade lovers get some filtered sun but are protected in the hottest part of the afternoon. It's too bad because I've seen so many plants and flowers I'd love to have in my garden, but they require more shade than I can give them.

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    3. That makes sense Christy. I have Sweet Woodruff planted on the North and East sides of my house. Do you have any foundation beds there with room for groundcovers? If so, Sweet Woodruff could be a good fit.

      And don't feel too bad about having so much sun. There are lots of great sun-loving plants. Although in TN, I agree that many plants seem to do better with at least some afternoon shade.

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  2. I most certainly do grow it in my garden, and I had forgotten that I'm also growing it in yours! I just hate it when people proclaim that certain plants are invasive and cause others not to give them a try. I love this plant and apparently lots of other people do, too, because it's one of my best sellers.

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    1. Thanks Dottie. Good to know that it such a best-seller! I had never heard of it before I started gardening a couple of years ago, but apparently the secret is out at least to some degree in the gardening community. Now let's spread the word even farther!

      PS - Per Christy's comment above, have you (or your customers) ever tried growing Sweet Woodruff in a full sun setting? I'm presuming it would get baked to a crisp -- in the Southeast -- unless it had lots of supplemental water (which I try to avoid).

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    2. Aaron, In my own garden, Sweet Woodruff is in a shaded area; however, at the nursery, the pots of Sweet Woodruff are mostly in the sun and really thrive there. I keep an eye on the moisture level like I do with everything in pots, but the sun hasn't been detrimental in the least.

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    3. Good to know, Dottie. Perhaps I'll try Sweet Woodruff in a sunnier spot later on, but I'm trying to build a drought-tolerant garden and I imagine that even if Sweet Woodruff does well in sunny areas it wouldn't have much drought-tolerance there. (In fact, I guess it's not much of a drought-tolerant plant period, but perhaps does well in sun or shade with enough water -- more water in sun than in shade?)

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  3. I love Sweet Woodruff! We have some here, too -- not a lot, but a few tufts of it here and there. Good choice, and thanks for all the great info!

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    1. Thanks!! Are your tufts newly-planted? Are they growing or struggling? This is still my 1st year with Sweet Woodruff. Eager to see how it will fare over time and hope it continues to grow and thrive...

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    2. I'm delighted to learn that you had success in growing woodruff. I want to try and grow it in South Australia. I absolutely adore Woodruff and miss it very much. Not only do the Germans use it in their May punch but they also put it in beer (Berlinerweisse - yum!), make cakes, flans, gateaux, sweets and jelly from its flavour but best of all, they make ICE-CREAM from it! Unfortunately, it's a seasonal pleasure whenever woodruff is in bloom but when it does come round, it's all my Christmases and birthdays come at once. The taste defies description as it is very unusual, but ooooooh so delicious. To tide Woodruff fans over through the rest of the year, you can get an artificial syrup/cordial which mimics the taste quite well and does the job until the real stuff grows again. To my profound joy, I've discovered you can get it (and the jelly jpackets) online through http://thegermanshop.com.au/Shop/.

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    3. I've no experience eating woodruff. I will admit that dried Sweet Woodruff has a pleasant scent.

      From a horticultural perspective, I ended up ripping mine out. It looked absolutely dreadful last winter and didn't look so wonderful in the heat of the summer either - http://www.gardenofaaron.com/2014_02_01_archive.html.

      Even worse, it was starting to spread a little uncontrollably through the bed. When I tore it out, I found it had made a solid "web" of roots right below the soil surface. It was like a Sweet Woodruff desert. Not cool. I can't recommend that anyone plant this outside of its native area.

      From an edible standpoint, I do understand it's used for flavoring purposes in Germany, but various sources (e.g., http://www.botanic.cam.ac.uk/Botanic/TrailPlace.aspx?p=27&ix=268&pid=0&prcid=0&ppid=0) list a compound that it contains called coumarin as being moderately toxic.

      According to Wikipedia, the FDA banned coumarin as a food additive back in 1954, but may still allow use of natural products containing coumarin (such as Sweet Woodruff) in alcoholic beverages only - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coumarin

      All that to be said, erring on the side of caution, personally I would not ingest Sweet Woodruff and would warn other gardeners not to eat it. I don't mean to doubt the Germans on its safety or say that the FDA is all-knowing, but just doesn't seem like a good risk-reward ratio. (But then again, perhaps that's because I've never tried real German May wine and don't know what I'm missing?)

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  4. I don't grow it - but have been looking for some good groundcovers. This one is pretty. It will definitely be going on my list to add to my garden! Thanks for all the info.

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    1. Wonderful, Holley!! Hope you like Sweet Woodruff as much as I have. See Dottie's comment above about being able to grow Sweet Woodruff in sun as well as shade...

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  5. We had Sweet Woodruff growing in our Master Gardener Learning Garden in Virginia. It seemed to fade out often, while in a MG's garden it did fine. I would love to grow it here in SC, I certainly have a lot of woodland garden area. I am surprised you had it in so much sun.

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    1. Hm. Was the Sweet Woodruff that "faded out" in a sunny spot? As you say, I had thought Sweet Woodruff was a shade-loving plant but Dottie (in her comment above) says that Sweet Woodruff has done well for her in both sun and shade (provided that it gets enough moisture in sun).

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  6. Even though it is not a native to the US, I have a patch under a large ash in the white garden...it has spread nicely in the past 5-6 years and stays controlled. It has some interesting uses in its native lands. I like the foliage and cute little white flowers.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Donna! I like it for all the same reasons you do :) Happy to know it has performed well for you over the years. I hope mine spreads as yours did.

      PS - Do you cut it back annually to stimulate fresh growth or do you just let it grow naturally?

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    2. Sweet Woodruff is my favorite ground cover. I have had nothing but wonderful success with it. I have it on a slightly sloped shaded hillside. I am planting some in another area of my property where it will get sun. I am hoping that it will be happy there. I am in Western Pennsylvania. I have not trimmed mine or done anything to it once I planted it several years ago. It's very delicate looking although it's hardy.

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    3. Thanks for your comment, Connie.

      At this point, Sweet Woodruff is definitely one of my favorites. It has spread nicely, but I feel (naively?) that I could control it if I needed to. Have you had any issues controlling its spread? And does it flower much for you? Mine didn't have any flowers the first year and just a few this spring.

      So far it has handled both 100+ heat and 20- cold and stayed evergreen and (mostly) beautiful throughout. My largest and healthiest patch gets sun all morning and until about 1-2 p.m. during the summer here in Tennessee. I'll probably try to divide my largest patch and spread it to a few other places on the property this autumn.

      Some of my other groundcover favorites include Hardy Blue Plumbago (although it is herbaceous / deciduous, which can be a problem in the winter and early spring since it's late to releaf), Veronica "Georgia Blue" (though it hasn't spread much), Creeping Raspberry, Lamb's Ear "Helene Von Stein" and Chrysogonum virginianum Green and Gold (though it's barely spread at all).

      I bet all of those would do well for you too!

      PS - I'm originally from Pennsylvania myself, though the Eastern part :)

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  7. Hi everyone. I thought that you may be interested in the fact that I use Sweet Woodruff as a strewing herb when we do outdoor events at music festivals. My wife and I have a complementary therapy practice and we attend festivals to give treatments in our gazebos to festival-goers. We're just preparing to go to 'Strawberry Fields Festival', a mini Glastonbury, if-you-like, where sweet woodruff will be placed on the floor so that when trodden, it will release it's magical scent, dating back to the Middle Ages,; and probably well-before that, here in England. It has a comforting, relaxing and sleep-inducing effect, that's great for making our treatments just that little bit extra-special. The scent seems to invoke some kind of ancient memory of times gone by and really tugs at the memory-strings. It seems to get stronger once dried and the scent lasts for ages. Why not give it a try when you want to relax sometime? Best regards to all ... Les

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Les.

      Very interesting!

      Do you dry the Sweet Woodruff first or just put it freshly cut on the floor?

      I tried drying a few sprigs in my kitchen at one point to see if I could smell the distinctive Sweet Woodruff scent, which I believe comes from a chemical it contains called Coumarin (pretty potent stuff -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coumarin)

      I was able to detect a mild scent from a few sprigs. I bet it's much more fragrant if you strew it all over the floor.

      Have fun at the Festival!!

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  8. Hi Aaron
    I am in far south New South Wales, Australia, and only discovered Sweet Woodruff last year through some friends who gave me some leaves ... I left them to dry out in a little pot and fell in love with the heady, exotic scent which smells to me like marzipan.... not overpowering but so lovely to catch the warm, unusual scent when walking through the living room ... divine! A year later I can still smell the mysterious scent from this little bowl of dried leaves and I'm not surprised it was used as a strewing herb in the old days. I understand it was also used to scent ladies' straw mattresses. Today I am planting my first little clumps of Sweet Woodruff, given by friends, under some trees in a woodland setting which will give them dappled light... can't wait for it to grow and spread out to be a pretty evergreen groundcover. Thank you for all your great information on this plant.
    Elly

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    1. Thanks for your note, Elly!

      Yes, I have heard that Sweet Woodruff was used in old times in straw mattresses. I think it was used in that way both for its fragrance and because it supposedly has the ability to repel insects.

      I hope that it works as a wonderful groundcover for you!!

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  9. Hi again Aaron

    We're just back from the festival, sleep-deprived, but happy. What I do is to pull out some fresh sprigs of Sweet Woodruff and place them in a waterproof container with a few drops of water. I then strew the herb on the grassy area inside our gazebo, where the barefoot festival-goers walk in. That crushes the leaves and releases the wonderful scent throughout the day. I understood that one of the old names for this herb is 'wild children's breath', which is pretty exotic, to say the least. When asked what it reminds them of, the consensus of opinion is that it brings back memories of their childhood, playing in the fields and maybe pretending to be 'running wild', just like the words of the song. It's probably that connection that tugs so strongly at the memory strings. What do others say ?..

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    1. Thanks for that wonderful story, Les.

      I think some people say that the crushed dried leaves have the scent of vanilla.

      But wild children's breath certainly has a more evocative and exotic ring to it!

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    2. I think that it depends upon the individual how they interprete the smell. For me, it's more like the sweet smell of freshly mown hay. It's interesting that there's a parallel between Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings', where Arargorn uses a herb similar to sweet woodruff as a healing herb to fend off evil spirits. That too had small star-like, white flowers. I think it had a common name of 'Athalas' in the book, as I recall, but was also known as 'Kingsfoil'. Well . . . sweet woodruff has a common mundane name of 'ladies bedstraw', here in England, but also another more mysterious name of 'master-of-the-woods'. Now . . . A wise-woman pal of mine has suggested that it can also be used to bathe wounds, when placed in warm water, since it has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, but I wouldn't advocate using it, other than for its wonderful scent. I wonder if Tolkien was actually drawing upon his knowledge of our English herbal lore, as he did with many other references in 'Lord of the Rings' and used it in Middle Earth context in his books? Just a thought ...

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    3. Thanks for the additional information, Les.

      Sounds like you have quite a fair bit of knowledge of English herbal lore yourself!

      Tolkien certainly had a masterful way with words.

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  10. Although your original post appeared almost 3 years ago I found it highly informative and it really got me excited about my recent gardening efforts. I live in northern Germany and as you stated, Waldmeister is very popular here. I am redesigning my flowerbeds and decided I needed a white blooming ground cover. This prompted me to order some Sweet Woodruff. I bought 10 nice sized pots and distributed them throughout my bed. I cannot wait til I see the first 'babies' crawling in the bed. The fact that you live in the south and your plants receive so much sun has given me hope that although mine are not in complete shade, they too will flourish, as we don't have terribly warm summers with lots of sunshine. Thanks for a great article about my new favorite ground cover!

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    1. I'm happy you enjoyed the post on sweet woodruff!

      Mine seemed to do pretty well in partial sun, although ultimately I don't think they were too happy with the heat and humidity of Tennessee summers.

      I ended up removing sweet woodruff -- both because it was struggling and yet also (paradoxically) because it was spreading too much for my tastes. I'm always a bit wary of exotic (non-native) plants that spread aggressively.

      However, I *believe* sweet woodruff is native to Germany. If so, the aggressiveness would not bother me nearly as much.

      Enjoy the plant! I hope it is a great performer for you. And hope you'll receive other gardening inspiration from this blog. You can even subscribe via email (http://www.feedio.co/@gardenofaaron) if you'd like to keep up-to-date on new posts...

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