Sweet Woodruff

Useful Sweet Woodruff


A few years ago I got a tiny little start of Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum formerly Asperula odorata) at a yard sale. I stuck it in the ground way back in a dark corner under huge shrubs that frame a basement window.

Despite that the area is dark & dry, the Sweet Woodruff spread rapidly, though not as thick & pleasing as it can be when better watered & getting at least a tad more sun. But in kinder situations it also risks becoming a run-away nuisance difficult to keep contained. Since it is fairly confined by its location, I've no worries about this European wildflower's somewhat aggressive tendencies.

It is a good choice for under trees up close to the trunks, just so long as it doesn't get too terribly dry. I hardly ever see this patch, hidden as it is way back under & between fountaining forsythia & abelia shrubs. The patch is visible in early spring before the forsythia releafs, or if I get down on my knees & look under the shrubs. It is always doing dandy, despite that even weeds don't do well way back there, & the only companions to the Sweet Woodroof are a few long-naturalized White Squills. It blooms throughout April & May, tiny white blossoms scattered over the top of eight inch tall greenery.

A traditional herbal remedy when mixed with wine, it was once regarded as good for just about anything that ails ya, & provided many a Grandma with a respectable method of being a wino. "Grandma's May Wine" can be made with a handful of leaves harvested in April (or just before full bloom), dried & crushed in a mortar, slightly moistened with a little squeezed lemon just before being steeped in a bottle of unchilled wine for about three hours. Then hump over a bit & complain in a quavery voice about stomach upset & sore bones & you're ready to booze it up!

When dried as herbal branches, it fills the room with a lovely grassy vanilla odor, & is said to function as a household insect repellant. The dried leaves & flowers can be made into a potpourri & kept in a linen closet to repell moths & to lend its sweet odor to linen or clothing.

The pleasing odor & possibly some of its alleged medicinal qualities are from the chemical coumarin, an old perfumery ingredient. The FDA has banned it for use in herbal remedies to be taken internally because it is quite dangerous, though the FDA specifically clears it for use when properly prepared as an additive to wine. Sweet Woodruff has additionally been used by dyers to make tan or grey-green dyes or, with the addition of alum, red dyes.

Sweet Woodruff is occasionally called Fragrant Bedstraw or Our Lady's Bedstraw, for in Catholic mythology it becomes sacred to the Virgin Mary. It was hung in medieval churches on holidays not only because of sacred associations, but to disguise the odor of the unwashed congregation.

Its sacredness to Mary & the idea that she used this herb to sweeten the bedding of her newborn infant is surely a myth coopted from a pagan age. It is no coincidence that the above-mentioned "May Wine" with tincture of Sweet Woodruff is still important to modern pagans, who imbibe such wine at Beltaine (May Day) to honor the Mother & Father of the woods. In Germany the plant is called Waldermeister, "Master of the Woods," an allusion to the Green Man, consort or fertility daemon of the Great Mother. This Great Mother is sometimes acknowledged as Maia, Goddess of Spring, for whom May is named, & whose sacred son was Hermes/Mercury, in Christian myth coopted as Daystar, a name for Jesus [2 Peter 1:19; Revelations 2:28; 22:16].

So a plant sacred to Myrrha or Maia the mother of the Daystar (Mercury) became sacred to Mary who was likewise the mother of the Daystar! Odder still, perhaps, is that Myrrha was the mother of Adonis, whose name is Semitic; Adonai is merely the plural of Adonis, hence a name of Yahweh.

The meaning of "ruff" in woodruff is lost to time, but could well have alluded to a Green Man divinity, "Rofe of the Woods." Now it is a real eye-opener to realize that Rofe or Roph is an epithet of Yahweh in Exodus [15:25-26], where he is called Yahweh-roph or Adonai the Healer. This is a name that would seem to associate him with the underworld rephaim ("shades" or "healers"). In Torah the rephaim were giants to be done battle [Gn 14:5], but in Ugaritic literature, they were servants of the Sun-mother Shapash, for they served & dwelt with her in the underworld where the sun sets, & were dwelt nature-spirits who could cause or heal diseases.

Variants of the name Woodruff go way back in medieval literature as Woodrove, Wooderowffe, Woderofe, & others. One theory is that this Rofe or Ruff was a corruption of an old French word rover, meaning "wheel," due only to the shape of the leaves, which are arranged like umbrella spines or the spokes of a wheel.

I think it more likely that it is from an ancient root word rov encountered in English, French, Scandinavian & other languages, & meaning "to roam (or rove)," "to unleash arrows," or "to snatch," all potential Green Man activities. Rofe of the Woods as a "Snatcher" is particularly evocative, because a "Snatcher" in many languages indicates a demonic divinity resembling a huntress or hunter, or sometimes an owl, sea-bird, or a winged being likened a Thief of Souls, such as snatch away the spirits of the dead.

Sweet Woodruff is in fact toxic enough to cause liver damage & death, but I think the Snatcher of the Woods had a more metaphysical & religious significance in pre-Christian Europe. Even the French meaning "wheel" alludes to this same forest-roaming snatcher, whose wheel was ultimately the turning pinwheel of heaven, by which souls are delivered, according to their natures in life, to either good or bad rewards.


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