Name: Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
Otherwise known as: Waldmeister
Habitat: A perennial member of the Rubiaceae growing to 50cm in light woodland in Europe. It has a brown, creeping rootstock from which stems extend containing ruffs of six to nine leaves and terminating in clusters of bright white flowers in late spring. The whole plant when dried has the pleasant odour of new-mown hay.
What does it do: The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon – wudurofe – meaning a woody root.
Like all members of this family, woodruff has been used for centuries as a liver stimulant; Antonius Musa, physician to Caesar Augustus, claimed that it ‘preserveth the liver from harm and witchcraft’. Gerard, the Elizabethan apothecary, writes ‘it is reported to be put into wine to make men merry and to be good for the heart and liver’.
The herb contains anthraquinones, flavanoids, iridoids, nicotinic acid and tannins. One of these constituents includes coumarin, a powerful anti-coagulant, which features in the manufacture of Warfarin, used in the treatment of thrombosis and as a rat poison. This makes it anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, diuretic, vulnerary, sedative, carminative, tonic and anti-migraine. Before the arrival of oriental teas in Europe this was one of the popular woodland teas and consumed on a daily basis by country-folk.
Woodruff is used by herbalists to treat a range of ailments and disorders, these include, removing biliary obstructions of the liver, nervous irritability, muscular spasms, heart palpitations, insomnia, migraine, varicose veins and phlebitis.
The plant is added to various liqueurs and dessert wines. The Germans include woodruff in their May-Wine bowl, it appears in fruit salads, sorbets and aromatic snuffs.
The dried leaves are a fixative in pot-pourri and are used in linen cupboards to scent the linen and repel moths.
Alexander McCowan is author of the World’s most Dangerous Plants