From sweet dreams to sickly sweets: the changing faces of sweet woodruff

This woodland herb was revered in the Germanic pagan tradition and featured as the traditional ingredient in their maibowle punch. It was also familiar to mediaeval Britons, who used it to scent their homes and bedchambers with grass and vanilla.

A sweet woodruff posey drying on a mantel
The dried herb can be used to scent homes with its enduring, mown hay and vanilla-like smell

The Germans are smitten with sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). In their supermarkets, you’ll find it flavouring a range of sugary junk-foods, which are typically coloured a synthetic neon green (SpoonfullsofGermany.com, 2015). While we might associate a lurid green sweet with lime or mint flavour, in Germany this culinary colour-code is always linked to this plant and its sweet, vanilla flavour (Bach, 2017). It appears in jellies, ice creams, fizzy drinks and sweets, creating an incongruous image of this once-revered herb, which they know as “waldmeister” — the master of the forest.


In fact, the majority of these products now contain little to no sweet woodruff. Its cultural conversion to a synthetic flavouring is partly because it has been banned as a real ingredient in industrially-produced foods marketed to children in Germany since 1974 (Bach, 2017). This is due to its potentially toxic coumarin content, although mild over-consumption usually just leads to a headache. The country’s ban on sweet woodruff stemmed from a study that found it to be toxic in rats and mice but the same effect has never been demonstrated in humans, where it is processed via a different metabolic pathway (Lake, 1999). Coumarin is still restricted to a limit of 2mg/kg in food marketed to adults in Germany, but fresh sweet woodruff is simply sold straight in street markets when in season.


Maibowle drink flavoured with sweet woodruff
Maibowle is a sweet woodruff-flavoured wine punch

Use of the natural herb endures in Germany in the maibowle, or waldermeisterbowle, a sparkling wine punch flavoured with the dried leaves and said to reduce inhibitions. A recipe for the drink, traditionally consumed on Walpurgisnacht (Beltane, April 30-May 1), was first alluded to by the Benedict monk Wandalbertus, from the Prüm monastery, as far back as 854 AD. By the mid-1800s, it was an established tradition, featuring in Joseph Victor von Scheffel’s Romantic poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen, which mentions the “white-flowering/May-wine flavouring woodruff”. Incidentally, a synthetic woodruff flavouring also features in another German summer drink, Berliner Weiße mit Schuss, which combines a light wheat beer with a dash of green woodruff syrup (Bach, 2017) — a twist on the British lager and lime.


Pillows, posies and pot pourri

In Britain, sweet woodruff was traditionally favoured more for its scent, which is often described as like freshly-mown hay and vanilla. Consequently it was used as a strewing herb from at least the 1300s onwards. It’s also coumarin that gives the herb its smell, which it shares with other high coumarin-content plants around the world, like the tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata), vanilla grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), mullein (Verbascum spp.), cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum) and sweet clover (Fabaceae spp.). Its scent also made it a regular choice for nosegays and it is often claimed that Queen Elizabeth I would hand dried woodruff posies to anyone on whom she wished to bestow temporary favour.

Dried sweet woodruff leaves
The herb gives off its strongest scent when dried

One of sweet woodruff’s advantages as a strewing herb lay in the fact that it gives off its strongest odour when dried. Strewing herbs were used to mask unpleasant odours in an era when houses and their occupants did not have the best levels of cleanliness but they served a dual purpose by also helping to control insects. By the 19th century, sweet woodruff’s chief use was as a moth repellant, and the leaves were said to retain their scent for two or three years (Pratt, 1863). Recent studies have supported coumarin’s excellent potential as an insecticide against eggs, larvae and adult insects (Hussain, Qamar Abbas & Reigosa, 2018).


For the 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, though, sweet woodruff was best-known as a lady’s bedstraw, used for stuffing mattresses, like its cousin Galium verum (to which the colloquial epithet “lady’s bedstraw” is usually applied). Culpepper also considered sweet woodruff to be a “herb of Venus”, “strengthening the parts… which she rules”. Sweet woodruff’s place in the bedchamber seems to have bestowed the herb with muddled associations of purity and fertility. In the middle ages, it found a place in churches, where it was hung or placed in boxes with lavender and roses on special days, such as Saint Peter’s and Saint Barnabas’ Day (Grieve, 1931). It also became associated, as many flowers do, with the Virgin Mary.


The herb of sex and sleep

A bouquet of sweet woodruff
Germanic pagans collected the sweet woodruff at Beltane

In pre-Christian Germany though, sweet woodruff was associated with the goddess Freya, who presided over Beltane, and is linked to love, beauty, fertility and sex. During the German pagan celebration, the “youth” were said to collect herbs and flowers, including sweet woodruff, as well as other plants sacred to the tradition, such as chamomile, mugwort and thyme, and use them as beds for lovemaking (Müller-Ebeling, C., Rätsch, C. & Storl, 2003). In the same vein, Culpepper added that the herb was “...said to be a provocative to venery”. It is known as an invasive plant, which perhaps enhanced this association, through its vigorous, spreading roots.


As a result of its role in the bedchamber, woodruff became associated with sleep, a link amplified by its reputation as a soporific. Pillows stuffed with woodruff were said to lead to a peaceful night’s rest. In Romania, the plant appeared in folk medicine as a cure for children’s nightmares and insomnia, which were thought to be produced by Muma-pădurii (“Mother of the Forest”), a terrifying female spirit who frightens the child during the night (Petran, Dragos & Gilca, 2020). In the Ukraine, it was widely used as a sedative folk treatment for neurosis, neurasthenia and hysteria (Nataliia Sergeevna et al., 2015). There is some science supporting this: a dry extract of the herb was found to have sedative activity on the central nervous system when tested in mice, without having an adverse effect on skeletal muscle tone and coordination (Nataliia Sergeevna et al., 2015).


Sweet woodruff growing wild
Sweet woodruff: 'good for the heart and liver'

Culpepper also noted this use of sweet woodruff, observing its “tranquilising affect to treat insomnia.”. Although sweet woodruff seems to be omitted from the ancient herbals, such as Pliny, it grew in popularity during the Middle Ages, when it was used as an anti-inflammatory poultice for wounds and cuts. It was also taken internally for the treatment of digestive and liver problems. Gerard (1597) recorded it as “good for the heart and liver: it prevaileth in wounds, as Cruciata, and other vulnerary herbs do”. This is also reflected in alternative German folknames for the herb: Sternleberkraut (“star liver herb”) and Herzfreund (“heartfriend”) (Müller-Ebeling, C., Rätsch, C. & Storl, 2003).


Although studies on sweet woodruff are limited, coumarin and its derivatives have demonstrated antithrombic, anti-inflammatory, vasodilatory and antiviral properties (Watson & Preedy, 2016). It has also been shown to have some antibacterial and antimicrobial capabilities (Behrami, 2014).

Sweet woodruff leaves n the stem
Its common name comes from the spoke-like leaves

According to Mrs Grieve's Modern Herbal (1931), the plant’s colloquial name first appeared in the thirteenth century as “wuderove” and later as '”wood-rove”, “the rove being derived, it is said, from the French rovelle, a wheel, in allusion to the spoke-like arrangement of the leaves in whorls. In old French works it appears as muge-de-boys, musk of the woods”. Its leaf arrangement is not dissimilar to its cousin cleavers, or sticky willy (Galium aparine), although its stems are much more erect. It grows to a height of around 30cm and forms thick blankets of ground cover. When in season from May to June, terminal clusters of small, white, starry flowers form.


Sweet woodruff’s spear-shaped leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and can be added to fruit salads. As well as flavouring drinks such as the maibowle, the dried leaves and flowers can also be used to make a fragrant tea (Pfaf.org, n.d). It should be noted that coumarin breaks down to form dicoumarin in the presence of certain moulds, which can affect the plant if it gets damp during drying. Sweet woodruff should therefore be dried quickly, within 48hrs, as dicoumarin is an anticoagulant.



References

Behrami, A. (2014). Antibacterial Activity of Coumarine Derivatives Synthesized from 4-Chloro-chromen-2-one. The Comparison with Standard Drug. Oriental Journal of Chemistry, 30(4), 1747–1752.


Bach, V. (2017, May 1). It Tastes Green.


Grieve, M. (1931). A Modern herbal. Cape.


Hussain, M. I., Qamar Abbas, S., & Reigosa, M. J. (2018). Activities and Novel Applications of Secondary Metabolite Coumarins. Planta Daninha, 36.

Lake, B. G. (1999). Coumarin Metabolism, Toxicity and Carcinogenicity: Relevance for Human Risk Assessment. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 37(4), 423–453.


Müller-Ebeling, C., Rätsch, C. & Storl, W-D. (2003). Witchcraft medicine: healing arts, shamanic practices, and forbidden plants. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions.


Nataliia Sergeevna, I., Tatyana Vasilevna, I., Alla Mihaylovna, K., Erica Leonidivna, T., & Irina Aleksandrovna, K. (2015). The Antihypoxic and Sedative Activity of the Dry extract from Asperula odorata L. Pharmacognosy Communications, 5(4), 233–236.


Petran, M., Dragos, D., & Gilca, M. (2020). Historical ethnobotanical review of medicinal plants used to treat children diseases in Romania (1860s–1970s). Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 16(1).


PFAF Plant Database: Galium odoratum Sweet Woodruff, Sweetscented bedstraw, Bedstraw. (n.d.).


Pratt, A. (1863). Haunts of the Wild Flowers. Routledge, Warne & Routledge.


Watson, R. R., & Preedy, V. R. (2016). Fruits, vegetables, and herbs: bioactive foods in health promotion. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Ap.