Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Delicate Sweet Woodruff

Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, makes a prolific and lovely ground cover for the shade or semi-shade garden.

We have it throughout our white shade garden and it's delicate white flowers in early spring form a dense white carpet in keeping with the theme of the garden.

Sweet woodruff is quick to establish and can be considered invasive as it spreads easily if left unrestrained. Unlike other rapid spreaders, the members of the mint family in particular, in our shade garden it has rapidly filled spaces between plants but it has not interfered with or smothered the growth of any of the other plants. In fact, this spring, several large clumps of columbine found their way into the sweet woodruff and developed into handsome substantial plants that we transplanted to another bed.

Any overgrowth of the sweet woodruff has been a welcome blessing for us each spring. It is easily dug up and moved to other areas of the garden where it has made a lovely ground-cover under other trees and shrubs as well as blended well with vinca to help anchor a heavily shaded hill.

Sweet woodruff has a delicate fragrance and flavor reminiscent of  vanilla and makes a lovely flavor bouquet with lavender and lemon.  I've used it with fresh lemon zest and just a bit of finely minced lavender buds, blooms, or leaves (the soft new growth works well when the lavender is not in bloom). It adds a wonderful flavor note to cookies, sweet cakes, and muffins.

With both sweet woodruff and lavender, a tiny bit goes a long way. You want to add just a hint of flavor. Too much will leave you with a muffin tasting like it was made from scented soap.

Sweet woodruff is also the herb that is traditionally used to flavor May Wine. While any white wine will do, our personal favorite is a chardonnay, Arbor Mist's "Orchard Fruits". A light, sweet wine with delicious fruity notes, a sprig or two in the bottle for a few hours or overnight while it's chilling is just enough to kick it over the top and it makes a lovely garnish in the glass as well.

A spring sweet cake is best enjoyed with an afternoon cup of herbal tea, preferably in the garden! Try my own  recipe below for  a special treat. They can be served lightly dusted with confectioner sugar or frosted with flavored buttercream and garnished for special occasions.

I make a low calorie version that is better for diabetics and others watching calorie counts.

A brief word of caution is in order, however; a reader commented on one of my other blog posts about a health risk attributed to sweet woodruff. I responded to that comment and have added a comment here addressing the concern, which I would encourage readers who plan to use sweet woodruff in cooking to read and consider in the context of their own personal habits, medications and health.

Spring Sweet Cakes


1 stick of butter, softened
1 cup of sugar or granulated Splenda
4 eggs lightly beaten
1-1/2 Tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 heaping tablespoon of finely minced young lavender leaves
1 heaping tablespoon of finely minced woodruff leaves
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
zest and juice of one lemon
1/2 cup of lemonade
1 cup finely diced strawberries


In a mixer, cream sugar or Splenda and butter. Add eggs, salt, baking powder, minced herbs, lemon zest and lemon juice and continue to beat on medium speed until well mixed. Add half the flour, then the lemonade, then the remaining flour. The batter should be thicker than traditional cake batter. Continue to mix until well blended then fold in the strawberries.

Oven Temperature: 350 degrees, bake; 325 degrees convection
Baking Time - 18-20 minutes, until top springs back when pressed gently

I recommend using the large size muffin or cupcake pans or mini bundt pans.

Frost with your favorite buttercream or cream cheese frosting or drizzlew with a lemony glaze. I sometimes add some finely minced lavender leaves to the frosting or glaze. Garnish with strawberries, sweet woodruff leaves and blossoms, or lavender sprigs.

1 comment:

  1. Recently a reader named Ruben, posted a comment about this post on another of my blog posts. He related a concern about the safety of sweet woodruff and since his point was a valid one, I added a cautionary note to the body of the post and add these thoughts here as well.

    Actually, sweet woodruff is not poisonous and in small amounts it is perfectly safe for most people to consume. It does contain coumarin derivatives in very small amounts, so there is a theoretical risk of bleeding if consumed in large amounts, especially by people who are also taking medications or other herbs and supplements that also have the potential to increase coagulation time.

    Coumarin as a pure chemical was used quite liberally and indiscriminately for many years as a flavor enhancer in many foods, cigarette, pipe, and chewing tobacco, and in alcoholic beverages. The FDA has restricted the use of the chemical coumarin as a food additive but does specifically allow the use of natural sources of coumarin such as sweet woodruff as a flavor enhancer in alcoholic beverages.

    Concerns such as this are not unique to sweet woodruff. Similar concern exists for many herbs, spices, and green vegetables, including ginko, garlic, chamomile, and cinnamon. Broccoli in particular, but other green vegetables as well, contain Vitamin K at levels that can also cause increased tendency to bleed for anyone taking blood thinners. In fact alcoholic beverages also cause increased bleeding tendencies.

    The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment established a value that is safe for daily ingestion of coumarin that translates to about 6 mg daily for a person weighing 135 pounds. That is 6 mg of couarin, not 6 mg of sweet woodruff. And it should be noted that coumarin is not present in that form in sweet woodruff in any event. The precursers that are present are measured in PPM, that is, present in extremely small amounts and some studies failed to detect the presence of coumarin in sweet woodruff even after it had been dried and preserved.

    Like all things, moderation is key, and anyone who takes any herbs in large quantities either to enhance the taste of their food or for a presumed medical therapeutic effect should be consulting with a trained herbalist, just as patients taking medications should be getting similar information about drug/herbal interactions from their physicians.


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