Sweet woodruff, or Galium odoratum, loves to grow in the shade. It thrives so much so that it rapidly takes over an area. As is suggested by its species name, odoratum, sweet woodruff emits a sweet aroma.
Sweet woodruff has emerald green leaves, which appear in the spring. The leaves grow in whorls. In the late spring, the leaves make a lovely backdrop for this plant’s white, star-like flowers.
There are approximately 400 species of herbs in the genus Galium. The variety is vast. There are annuals and perennials; however, they all spread via rhizomes. They also have slender, square stems that are prickly to the touch.
This wild herb is native to northern and central Europe, North Africa and Siberia. It has also be naturalized, in a limited quantity in southern Canada and the northern areas of the United States.
The plants grow about twelve inches tall and will spread to form a mat-like ground cover. Sweet woodruff has yellow, stringy runners which grow underground. When it forms the mat-like growth, other plants in the area can be crowded out.
In southern areas, sweet woodruff is an evergreen with leaves that are elliptical and have bristles on their tips. These leaves grow in whorls with each leaf being about one and one-half inch in length. There can be six to eight leaves in each whorl. These leaves have glands both on the top and undersides, plus their edges are rough.
The sweet woodruff flowers are about one-quarter of an inch in length. They form a cluster at the tips of the stem or in the leaf’s axel. These delicate flowers give off a mild aroma.
The fruit of the sweet woodruff is small and round. It is also covered by hooked bristles, which help in dispersal of the plant, as they catch on clothing or the fur of passersby.
In French, the plant’s name is musc de bois, meaning wood musk. In German, it is Waldmeister, meaning master of the wood. Both these names indicate where it would naturally be found.
Another common name is bedstraw, which denotes how it was used to fill mattress as long ago as the Middle Ages. Churches would also hang it up as a sign of humility.
Through the years sweet woodruff has found uses medicinally as a treatment of the kidney, liver, uterine cramps and menopause. It has also been used to help with nervousness, dropsy, varicose veins, poor digestion and heart irregularities. It would even be added to other medicines to make their taste more palatable.
So, sweet woodruff, despite its nature to take over an area where it has been planted, has also found a useful niche in the world.