Once used as a scenting herb in homes and churches and as a stuffing for mattresses, sweet woodruff is a perennial groundcover native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia. When cut and dried, the plant’s leaves and stems smell pleasantly of vanilla and freshly mown grass. The fragrance can persist for years due to the presence of coumarin, a chemical used as a fixative for perfumes.
Common Names: Sweet Woodruff, Sweet-Scented Bedstraw
Description: Perennial groundcover, up to 8 inches tall; small, white flowers; narrow leaves in whorls of six or eight around each stem
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Flowering: May and June
Parts Used: Whole plant
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia; found in moist, wooded locations
Sweet woodruff has diuretic properties and can stimulate perspiration, helping your body eliminate waste through your skin. Coumarin, present at about 1 percent in this species, dilates blood vessels, which increases blood flow. This compound is used as the basis for anticoagulant drugs such as warfarin.
Native Americans traditionally used several related species of Galium to treat skin problems such as eczema, poison ivy, and ringworm, as well as gallstones, kidney trouble, and many other conditions. Some tribes considered the plant poisonous.
Caution: In large doses, coumarin can be toxic.
Sweet woodruff forms a lovely, low-maintenance groundcover in shaded locations, particularly beneath azaleas, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas. It establishes quickly and is rarely bothered by pests or diseases. Plant it along pathways, intermingled with spring-blooming bulbs, or under bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis).
The flowers and leaves add a sweet vanilla fragrance to potpourris, herbal wreaths, sachets, and perfumes; the dried leaves have also been used to repel moths. The stems and leaves make a tan dye in wool mordanted with alum; the roots yield a red dye.
How to grow it
A woodland plant, sweet woodruff thrives in moist, well-drained humus and shade. Provide an acidic soil rich in nutrients; leaf mold compost is ideal. After planting in spring, mulch to retain moisture and control weeds. Harvest sweet woodruff foliage as needed. To dry the sprigs, hang them in a warm, dark, airy place, or chop the herb immediately and spread it out to dry in shade.
Caution: There are reports of allergic skin reactions from handling plants in this genus.