We value the plants in our lives for many uses, but perhaps the least appreciated use is calendrical. Some plants tell us the time of day (or night), some tell us the month of the year and some, like sweet woodruff, announce the passage of the seasons. In October, when I step outside and smell new-mown hay mixed with vanilla, I know a frost has blasted the woodruff and released its internal fragrance—no more summer, only more frosts ahead. In March when I step outside and feel immersed in a meadow filled with vanilla, I know the frost has left the coolest and shadiest part of the garden and released the last frozen bits of last summer’s freeze-dried shoots—no more winter.
The other woodruffs (Asperula odoratum and Galium odoratum, for example) look much alike, with a series of whorled leaves around a stem topped by simple white flowers in the spring. Our woodruff is distinguished by its cargo of coumarins which give it its distinguished aroma. These compounds are stable when the plant is dried and very volatile, which is why woodruff is among the strewing herbs—useful for making your cottage or castle “glade-fresh” when the herbs are stepped on.
Its German name, Waldmeister, reminds us of its preferred habitat—the forest edges and depths. I’ve had this vigorous ground cover creep into a full-sun setting, but only because I watered it deeply if the summer got too hot and dry. I try to keep my prairie plants thriving.
This fragrant herb was used with others to blend cures for headaches, remedies for ingredient of potpourri, and my all-time favorites—“inhaling the smoke of smoldering aromatics and breathing in their ‘virtues’.” Besides fumigating a sickroom, another way to draw the good herbs into the body was by taking them as snuff—dried and finely powdered. Besides woodruff, other herbs used as snuff were yarrow, sneezewort, betony, and thyme. These were thought to clear the head and cure “melancholia.”
NOTE. Besides using his own references, Simon used back copies of Sprigs: April 2009, May 2005, May 2001, July 1996, and May 1992. Simon urges members to wander through the old copies of Sprigs which are at the Urbana Free Library -- Ask for the “Herb Society collection.”