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Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a herbaceous perennial plant in the family Rubiaceae, native to Europe, western Asia and north Africa. It grows to 30-50 cm long, often lying flat on the ground or supported by other plants. The plant is also known in English as Sweet Woodruff or Wild Baby’s Breath. “Master of the woods” is probably a translation of the German name Waldmeister. Names like “Sweetscented bedstraw”, “Cudweed” and “Ladies’ Bedstraw” should be avoided; the former two properly refer to Galium triflorum, the latter to Galium verum.
The leaves are simple, lanceolate, glabrous, 2-5 cm long, and borne in whorls of 6-9. The small (4-7 mm diameter) flowers are produced in cymes, each white with four petals joined together at the base. The seeds are 2-4 mm diameter, produced singly, and each seed is covered in tiny hooked bristles which help disperse the seed by sticking temporarily to clothing and animal fur.
This plant prefers partial to full shade in moist, rich soils. In dry summers it needs frequent irrigation. Propagation is by crown division, separation of the rooted stems, or digging up of the barely submerged perimeter stolons.
Woodruff, as the scientific name odoratum suggests, is a strongly scented plant, the sweet scent being derived from coumarin. This scent increases on wilting and then persists on drying, and woodruff is used in pot-pourri and as a moth deterrent. It is also used, mainly in Germany, to flavour May wine (called “Maiwein” or “Maibowle” in German), beer (Berliner Weisse), brandy, sausages, jelly, jam, a soft drink (Tarchun), and a herbal tea with gentle sedative properties.
High doses can cause headaches, and very high doses (far beyond those found in the aforementioned drinks) can even have mind-altering properties, as well as causing vertigo, somnolence or even central paralysis and apnoea while in a coma; so, some common sense should be applied when consuming woodruff. Since the 1980s, woodruff may no longer be used as an ingredient of industrially produced drinks and foodstuffs in Germany; it has been replaced by artificial aromas and colorings. However, the plant itself remains on sale and is also widely collected from the wild for private use. Using up to three grams of woodruff per litre of May wine is considered safe, as long as the drink is consumed no more than a few weeks per year.
Categories: Rubiaceae | Herbs | Flora of Europe | Flora of Estonia | Flora of the United Kingdom | Medicinal plants