Sweet Woodruff (Gallium odoratum / Asperula odoratum)

This is a groundcover mainstay in my garden. This has whorls of slender glossy green leaves, rough to the touch, but fresh and appealing groundcover that enjoys shady spots where it will spread substantially. The leaves appear tired and somewhat coarse by late winter so I pull them off and reveal a close knit carpet of tight-looking, fresh, green young foliage. This grows swiftly and is plentifully starred with white flowers in late April and May. It takes the stage with large-leaved spring favourites – Brunnera and Pulmonaria – when the whole ground seems covered with new growth.

Woodruff in April

Woodruff in April

The flowers of sweet woodruff are enchanting, sweet and clean. In my garden it has, over the years, established itself in many places and will even settle happily into the crowns of ferns where it peers out through the fronds and makes them look scruffy. It also reaches up through low growing plants and will happily cover them over before you’ve noticed. These plants seem happy to be overcome and doze beneath a woodruff duvet, not doing much until I pull the woodruff away from them in handfuls. In one corner of the garden it is engaged with a green periwinkle (Vinca minor). This gang of two happily rampage across dry shade, and make a dense green, somewhat bouffant carpet.

Woodruff in May

Woodruff in May

The trick with woodruff is to remove enough to give other plants a chance in summer, but to leave plenty so it will re-colonize the area to provide for maximum spring cover and interest.

Woodruff in August

Woodruff in August

Sweet woodruff was once used as a strewing herb as, when dried, it gives off the scent of hay, a fragrance that is retained for months. Perhaps bunches of this could be hung to dry in summerhouses or conservatories. Checking in an old herbal one learns that it found favour with the first Queen Elizabeth and was once used to fragrance churches. It can be mixed with apple juice or wine to make an appealing drink. It is said to deter moths if placed in drawers and wardrobes. A modern herbal reveals a number of medicinal uses as well. Perhaps it should be grown as a cash crop rather than consigned to the compost bin.

Susan A. Tindall

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