WOODRUFF Galium odorata syn. Asperula odorata
Woodruff looks a bit like a small version of Cleavers. Whorls of 6-8 petals clasp the angular stem which is crowned by pretty little star-shaped flowers. It is an attractive herb that has won the hearts of gardeners, although naturally it prefers to grow in damp, dark woodlands. It flowers in May and is often regarded as a herald of summer. Woodruff has played a role in various spring rites and in Germany it is still an essential ingredient of 'Mai Bowle' a traditional alcoholic May punch. However, while its taste is lovely and subtle, this brew often does have quite a punch indeed, which is usually not felt until the next day. Upon drying Woodruff develops its quintessential aroma, which is due to Coumarins, a white crystalline substance with a characteristic sweet smell. Unfortunately this substance has been deemed slightly poisonous and in some countries it is banned. In large doses it causes headaches and dizziness, which is the source of the punch in the 'Mai Bowle'. In Medieval times Woodruff, along with Lady's Bedstraw and other Coumarin containing herbs was used as a strewing herb, stuffed into mattresses, placed among the lingerie or blended into potpourris. It was also sometimes mixed into snuffs and tobacco. Culpepper warns that it will 'provoke venery' - his advice is in keeping with other traditions, where Coumarin containing plants are regarded as stimulating aphrodisiacs.
Due to its potentially toxic effects Woodruff is rarely used in herbal medicine today. In the old days it was used as a liver cleansing herb, though science now regards it as hepatotoxic. It is strongly diuretic and is said to clear cloudy urine. It stimulates the circulation and in the past was valued as an herb for varicose veins. It has been used as a relaxant sedative for adults and children alike.
Woodruff is associated with the festivities of spring and in Germany it is a traditional Beltaine herb. It may be used in handfasting rituals for its aphrodisiac properties, e.g. as a strewing herb or decoration to deck out the love-bower. It can also be added to sachets or incense blends. Woodruff may be used for communication with wood sprites, who adore this herb.