It's one of those beautiful spring days that you dream about during the depths of winter. My daughters are home, enjoying the first day of spring break. We ran some errands this morning and now they are playing in our backyard. I can hear their giggles and the creaks of their swings. The dog barks every once in awhile--just to hear herself bark.
I poked around in our gardens this morning. Our strawberry plants have fared well over the winter, as did the yarrow, which is looking soft, feathery, and very green. One of my favorite early spring plants has spread and looks like it's taking over a corner of the plot. It's sweet woodruff. A few years ago, I wrote a piece about it in Augusta Country, which is no longer publishing, much to my dismay.
Even though it's not yet May, I am thinking of May Day because of my delicate little sweet woodruff spreading along the ground. It's going to be awhile before I get this blog up and where I want it to be. In the the mean time, I thought I'd share this with you—part of my folksy kitchen garden column.
May Day and Sweet Woodruff
Sweet woodruff , with its delicate white flowers blossoming in spring and whorls of green leaves, offers much to the gardener, crafter, and herbalist. With its rich history of being an ingredient in May wine, sweet woodruff is the herb to use in welcoming spring and the “merry month” of May.
May wine is traditionally drunk on May Day to welcome the season and as a spring tonic. (See recipe.) According to the Herb Quarterly (Spring 1993) the wine is part of the ancient custom of “bringing in the May” which began in Rome, where a five-day festival in honor of Flora the Goddess of flowers was held. In ancient Britain, the festival of Beltane was celebrated on the first of May, Some of those traditions have found their way into todays festivals of spring—dancing around the Maypole, choosing a May Queen, and for some, drinking May wine, strewn with sweet woodruff.
Today, the ritual of drinking May wine has most taken hold in Germany, where the practice originated in the 13th century, and the Germans stills serve the “Mai Bowle” each day of the month. In Germany, sweet woodruff is called “waldmeister” or “master of the forests.” The name undoubtedly comes from the fact that it grows in shady woods or under hedges, making it a wonderful border or ground cover. Preferring the shade, sweet woodruff, can be grown on paths where it will release it’s fresh, soothing scent when stepped on.
”It is well know for its scent,” says Mary Lou DiGrassie, owner of Quail Hill Herb Shop, Fishersville, Va. “In fact, it is often used for fixative in perfumes.”
According the Herb Quarterly, sweet woodruff is called “muge-de-boys” or “woods musk” in old French, in reference to the herbs distinctive scent, which is only noticeable when it is dried or crushed. The scent is caused by coumarin, a constituent of sweet woodruff and the first natural scent to be synthesized from coal tars.
The fragrant use of the herb dates back to the Middle Ages. According to the Herb Companion (April/May 1996), the herb was used as a fragrant strewing herb and as a mattress filling. It was also hung in churches as a symbol of humility and placed among linens to repel moths and insects.
“It has an interesting history” says DiGrassie. “Medicinally, it was used as a liver tonic.”
Sweet woodruff definitely has an effect on the liver, she cautions. “It will actually stress the liver.” (And the Herb Companion warns that the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers sweet woodruff safe only in alcoholic beverages.)
Still, it is used today by modern herbalists, mostly as a laxative and for some kinds of arthritis, DiGrassie says. “You just don’t want to overdo it.”
The herb is also used in poultices to treat cuts and bruises, she points out. The Herb Companion states that research has shown that sweet woodruff kills bacteria and that one of its constituents, asperulide, reduces inflammation.
Rich with history, medicinal and scentual purposes, sweet woodruff is also easy to grow. Consider growing it as as a low-maintenance carpet in a shady spot in the yard.
Recipe for May Wine from Herb Companion
Steep sprigs of sweet woodruff and crushed strawberries in white wine in the refrigerator overnight, then strain the wine, and serve it in a punch bowl garnished with whole strawberries and fresh woodruff sprigs.
The best white wine for this is from Germany, actually called May wine, and is available in most wine stores during spring.