If the title sounds like the name of a new novel, continue reading for a charming introduction into an often-forgotten herb, sweet woodruff – Waldmeister (Galium odoratum formerly known as Asperula Odorata.) According to German folklore it is known by many sources as master of the woods. Delving deeper into its history and uses, you may want to obtain some quickly for a refreshing sip of Maiwein to celebrate May 1st.
In the edible landscape we chose sweet woodruff because it is an ideal herb to use for planting under trees and along shady walkways. With its whorls of emerald green leaves and white starry flowers, it is a welcome sight in late spring while the foliage is attractive all season long.
Sweet woodruff prefers a rich, loamy, well-drained slightly acidic soil but tolerates both sandy and heavy, alkaline clay soils. The shady side of our hügelkultur bed provides it with an optimum growing environment. It typically grows to about a foot tall and spreads indefinitely by stringy yellow underground runners. In our Zone 8 climate it is considered an evergreen. A light covering of mulch this winter helped it survive during the freeze.
The German name, Waldmeister (master of the woods), reflect its habitat, the common name bedstraw, applied also to other members of the genus, refers to its use. During the middle ages it was used as a fragrant strewing herb and mattress filling. When dried, the leaves smell pleasantly of new-mown hay, honey and vanilla.
Today, sweet woodruff is probably best known as an ingredient of German May wine. It is traditionally drunk on May Day both to welcome the season and as a spring tonic. Follow this simple recipe for a refreshing sip of an historical beverage. The recipe was taken from a German Culture website which specified that only the tender, young leaves should be used in this drink, before sweet woodruff is in bloom. As you can see from the photograph, our sweet woodruff fits that description, so we are ready to enjoy a glass of Maiwein on Saturday, May 1st!
Sweet Woodruff Wine
1 bottle dry German Riesling
7 sprigs young sweet woodruff
Tie the stems of the woodruff with a string and stuff it into the opening of the wine bottle, leaving the string outside the bottle. Let it soak for 15-20 minutes. Remove the bunch and serve the wine chilled. Note: Germans like to garnish the Maiwein with fresh strawberries and mint.
Here is a link to a wonderful recipe for Creamy Maiewien cake: gathervictoria.com.
Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008