Woodruff

(Asperula odorata) "Odorata" it certainly is, but the fresh leaves are quite scentless, and it is only in the dried state that the familiar hay smell becomes apparent. It is the coumarin content of the plant that is the cause of this fragrance, which transfers well to liquids. Richard Mabey enthused over the result of putting a sprig in a bottle of pure apple juice, and letting it steep for a week or two (Mabey. 1972). The Swiss put it in cognac and benedictine (Painter), while it is customary in Germany to use it to make Maiwein. Sprigs are steeped in Rhine wine, and this is the traditional May Day drink (G B Foster), fine as long as it is not taken in excess, for then it can cause loss of memory (Schauenberg & Paris).

In England, garlands of woodruff were hung in parish churches in the 15th century, particularly on St Barnabas's Day, 11 June (Grigson, 1955), and Gerard wrote of the sweet-smelling bunches of it brought into the house. It was popular, too, for scenting dried linen, and for laying in beds (Mabey. 1972), while in Holland, it has often been used to stuff mattresses, on the soporific hop pillow principle (Thomson. 1976).

Woodruff has been quite important medicinally in its day. To start with, coumarin is an anti-coagulant, so it had been useful for drugs used in heart disease (Mabey. 1972). Put another way, it is a blood-thinner, so woodruff tea was taken as a "spring tonic" (G B Foster), in the days when that was thought to be necessary. Such a tea, taken by itself or with strawberry leaves, helps to relieve headache and depression (Painter), or in Gerard's language, "put into wine, to make a man merry". Herbalists still use it to treat liver infections and jaundice (Grigson. 1955), while in the Highlands of Scotland the liquid in which woodruff had been boiled was given to consumptives (Grant) - indeed, the Gaelic name for it means "wasting plant" (Beith). It was used for the same complaint in Brittany, where minor ailments like colds were likewise treated with woodruff tea (Grigson. 1955). In Anglo-Saxon times, woodruff and brooklime, both rich in tannin, were applied to a burn, in butter, with Madonna Lily. It was said to heal without leaving a scar (Cameron).

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