Woodruff, Sweet

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Woodruff, Sweet

Botanical Name: Asperula odorata (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Rubiaceae

Synonyms: (Old English) Wuderove. Wood-rova.
(Old French) Muge-de-boys.
Part Used: Herb.

The Sweet Woodruff, a favourite little plant growing in woods and on shaded hedgebanks, may be readily recognized by its small white flowers (in bloom in May and June) set on a tender stalk, with narrow, bright-green leaves growing beneath them in successive, star-like whorls, just as in Clivers or Goosegrass, about eight leaves to every whorl. Unlike the latter, however, its stems are erect and smooth: they rarely exceed a foot in height, their average being 8 or 9 inches. The plant is perennial, with creeping, slender root-stock.

Being a lover of woods and shady places, its deep-green foliage develops best in the half-shade, where the sunlight penetrates with difficulty. Should the branches over shadowing it be cut away, and the full lightfall upon it, it loses its colour and rapidly becomes much paler.

When the seed is quite ripe and dry, it is a rough little ball covered thickly with flexible, hooked bristles, white below, but black-tipped, and these catch on to the fur and feathers of any animal or bird that pushes through the undergrowth, and thus the seed is dispersed.

The name of the plant appears in the thirteenth century as 'Wuderove,' and later as 'Wood-rove' - the rove being derived, it is said, from the French rovelle, a wheel, in allusion to the spoke-like arrangement of the leaves in whorls. In old French works it appears as Muge-de-boys, musk of the woods. Some of the old herbalists spelt the name Woodruff with an array of double consonants: Woodderowffe. Later this spelling was written in a rhyme, which children were fond of repeating: W O O D D E, R O W F F E.

Cultivation: As a rule, the plant is not cultivated, but collected from the woods, but it might be grown under orchard trees and can be propagated, (1) by seeds, sown as soon as ripe, in prepared beds of good soil, in the end of July or beginning of August, (2) by division of roots during the spring and early summer, just after flowering. Plant in moist, partially shaded ground, 1 foot apart.

Chemical Constituents: The agreeable odour of Sweet Woodruff is due to a crystalline chemical principle called Coumarin, which is used in perfumery, not only on account of its own fragrance, but for its property of fixing other odours. It is the odorous principle also present in melilot, tonka beans, and various other plants belonging to the orders Leguminosae, Graminae and Orchidaceae. It is employed in pharmacy to disguise disagreeable odours, especially that of iodoform, for which purpose 1 part of coumarin is used to 50 parts of iodoform. The plant further contains citric, malic and rubichloric acids, together with some tannic acid.

The powdered leaves are mixed with fancy snuffs, because of their enduring fragrance, and also put into potpourri.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Woodruff was much used as a medicine in the Middle Ages.

The fresh leaves, bruised and applied to cuts and wounds, were said to have a healing effect, and formerly a strong decoction of the fresh herb was used as a cordial and stomachic. It is also said to be useful for removing biliary obstructions of the liver. The plant when newly gathered has but little odour, but when dried, has a most refreshing scent of new-mown hay, which is retained for years. Gerard tells us: 'The flowers are of a very sweet smell as is the rest of the herb, which, being made up into garlands or bundles, and hanged up in houses in the heat of summer, doth very well attemper the air, cool and make fresh the place, to the delight and comfort of such as are therein. It is reported to be put into wine, to make a man merry, and to be good for the heart and liver, it prevaileth in wounds, as Cruciata and other vulnerary herbs do.' In Germany, one of the favourite hockcups is still made by steeping the fresh sprigs in Rhine wine. This forms a specially delightful drink, known as Maibowle, and drunk on the first of May.

The dried herb may be kept among linen, like lavender, to preserve it from insects. In the Middle Ages it used to be hung and strewed in churches, and on St. Barnabas Day and on St. Peter's, bunches of box, Woodruff, lavender and roses found a place there. It was also used for stuffing beds.