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Sweet Woodruff: The Shade Loving Herb

I know spring has arrived when I see the tiny white blossoms appear on the sweet woodruff plants in my yard. Sweet woodruff is truly a plant of spring.

In Germany the plant is used to flavor May wine used in the traditional Mai Bowle served at celebrations to welcome spring. Sprigs of the herb are added to new bottles of Rhine wine and allowed to steep over night. The wine is served from a punch bowl decorated around the base with flowering sweet woodruff and another herb of spring, fresh strawberries.

The herb has no fragrance when fresh, but when dried smells of vanilla and fresh mowed hay and is often used in potpourris and perfumes. In early times it was used to stuff mattresses and was used to repel insects.

Sweet woodruff was once used to decorate churches for religious holidays, and in early England the herb was used in wreaths, garlands and in tussie mussies. Sprigs of sweet woodruff are included in bridal bouquets to signify humility and shyness.

I gather the herb in the summer, and wire the leaves onto a wire wreath base, allowing to dry through the summer, ready to decorate with other dried flowers and herbs in the fall.

The Food and Drug Administration considers sweet woodruff safe for flavoring alcohol only. Large quanties of the herb have been found to cause dizziness and vomiting when ingested.

Sweet woodruff, gallium odoratum, is a shade loving perennial that blooms in tiny white flowers in May and June. The leaves appear like spokes on a wheel growing close to the ground.

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Sweet woodruff is hardy to zone 3 and prefers a soil that is slightly acid, rich in nutrients and humus, which is why the plant is perfect in natural or woodland settings. During drought conditions water as needed. The herb can be invasive, as it spreads quickly, so consider this when choosing the location.

While sweet woodruff can be planted by seeds, plants are a better choice. Sweet woodruff seeds can take as long as 200 days to propagate and over wintering helps the seeds to germinate, so they are best planted in the fall.

To propagate a large number of plants, choose a secluded location in the fall; amend the soil with hummus and leaf mold. Sprinkle on the seeds, cover lightly with soil, water well, then cover lightly with boughs of pine or another evergreen. Forget until spring, then remove the pine branches and watch for the seedlings to sprout. When several inches high transplant to the desired location.

Sweet woodruff is loved because it is one of a few shade loving herbs, for its scent when dried, for its ease in growing and for its history and tradition. The herb is a great addition to any herb lovers’ garden.

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