sweet woodruff

A public service announcement about sweet woodruff

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I am forever warning people about planting vigorous self seeders, like mint or chamomile, directly in the garden. However, there are also vigorous spreaders—and have I got a vigorous spreader story for you! About four years ago, I bought a nice little sweet woodruff plant. I had seen it in another garden and loved the little white flowers that appear in spring.

Sweet woodruff is also a very popular plant in Europe. When I was in Germany last year, I discovered that it’s used to flavour all sorts of things, from candy to cordial. Here it is in bloom.

sweet woodruff flowers

It’s very pretty, right? Well, this year, my seemingly innocuous little plant became a garden bully.

It happened slowly.

The first year my sweet woodruff overwintered, it had spread a little by spring, but I was comfortable with that because I want things to fill out in my garden. Last year, I had to tidy around the edges a bit. Fast forward to this past spring when all of a sudden, I had to pluck sweet woodruff out of my dianthus, keep it from encroaching on a miniature lilac and rescue my delosperma Fire Spinner.

Dianthus and sweet woodruff

Sweet woodruff insinuating itself into dianthus territory.

I have a lot to do in my garden, so I had to “press pause” on pulling sweet woodruff shoots and walk away at some point to tend to other things. However, once those pretty white blooms died back and my delosperma started to bloom, I realized I needed to get back to it, stat. This “sweet” woodruff had smothered part of a very drought-tolerant, hardy plant.

delosperma and sweet woodruff

And here it is encroaching on my ‘Fire Spinner’ plant!

I still like sweet woodruff, but I do caution any gardener to consider it’s placement in a garden. Do you have any similar plant warnings?

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61 Responses to A public service announcement about sweet woodruff

  1. Geryl says:

    I planted it in shade where it is very well behaved.

  2. Jolene says:

    I am having a similar issue with Centaurea montana in my Zone 3B garden. Its level of invasiveness is BEYOND nasty and spreads easily via self seeding and rhizomes. It kills me because I love the flower so much but I just can’t deal with it taking over my flower beds. Once I get the situation under control it will only be planted in containers and vigorously deadheaded.

    • Tara says:

      Thanks for the caution, Jolene! It’s such a pretty bloom, but good to know it’s hard to control!

    • sherry says:

      I’m in the same situation. it has taken over. I have spent this spring whacking off every semblance of a flower head. It is near impossible to get the root, but I can at least provide some serious birth control.

    • Edward F Nikodem says:

      I found brunnera to be another plant that will take over a shady garden. I put in a few plants a couple of years ago and now it is filling the whole bed. The little blue forget-me-not like blossoms are pretty in spring and I have had trouble growing other plants in the area, so I am giving it free rein. If you don’t want a bed filled with brunnera, don’t plant it or be very vigilant.

  3. Linda says:

    I planted a spiderwort (Tradescantia) a few years ago that is spreading everywhere. Yes, it’s easy to grow and filled in a spot in the garden that needed a different leaf….but I am having to pull out babies everywhere!!

  4. suz says:

    my two biggest problems in the past: 1. physostegia (obedient plant) – more like disobedient plant. it’s very invasive (especially in the fertile, manure-laced soil on our farm – we’re on the zone 6a/b line in eastern ohio) like your pic of the woodruff bullying the fire spinner. 2. oenothera (i had the pink primrose variety) – should just be called ohno. same problem as the obedient plant and just as hard to get rid of. both plants probably wouldn’t be as bad in poorer soil. –suz in ohio

  5. S.C. says:

    My neighbor seems to like invasives. He’s not a gardener, and I think he thinks they will be easy, because they take over. Anyway, first it was bamboo, then four o’clocks. Both have to be dug out. And in the back, I have alstromeria that has taken over. I love it, but it’s a huge patch.

  6. Jan Lovelock says:

    My “bête noire” is creeping bellflower (campanula rapunculoides), which I’ve heard referred to as the plant from hell. Once in your garden, I’ve found it impossible to get rid of. It has small surface roots that connect to large, white, tuberous roots deeper down, so you have to dig down at least a foot to pull out those tubers. My front garden is so invaded, that I think I’m going to dig out the plants I want, comb through the good roots to get rid of the creeping bellflower ones, pot them up, and then hire someone to dig out the rest of the garden as deep as needed to get all the roots, then replace the earth and replant the good ones. It keeps popping up in my other gardens too, so I have to be vigilant to pull it before it spreads. And I didn’t even plant this invader in the first place — no idea where it came from!

    • Tara Nolan says:

      Hi Jan! That sounds like the bindweed that I cannot tame! It’s all through my side garden and my neighbours’. Sounds like you have a big job ahead if you move forward with your plans!

  7. Margaret says:

    I have had the same issue with sweet woodruff this year – what’s strange is that it’s been growing in this same spot on the north side of my house since we moved here (7 years ago) and it hasn’t really spread that much. But this year, whoa, it’s taken over! I’ve been pulling but, like you, had other thing to tend to so I haven’t been as diligent as I should have been. I also have some Lily of the Valley in that area and it’s having the same containment issues – I’m wondering if our unusually warm winter had anything to do with their more aggressive behavior this year.

    • Tara Nolan says:

      I wonder that, as well, Margaret. Though to be honest, since I wrote this post in the spring, the relentless heat from this past summer appears to have decimated it. Wondering if it will come back next year…

  8. Glynis says:

    I’m always amazed that variegated goutweed (bishop’ s weed), and sometimes plain old horrific goutweed, is sold or shared. My nightmare. Add to that: Creeping Charlie; Butter-and-eggs; and Lily-of -the-Valley (that should have it’s own garden bed ’cause the scent is so worth it); and last but not least Spirea, which in NS readily self-seeds under other shrubs and then pokes out only when they’re murder to remove. Most seeds seem to revert back to the native shrub with only a few coming true – so dead-head or keep the mulch going.

    • Jackie says:

      Funny thing about the goutweed. I got some from a neighbour who was overrun with it. I put it in a shady corner by the house hoping it would spread all along the front and side. In 15 years, it has only expanded by about 1 foot in each direction. Lamium and creeping jenny, on the other hand, are fighting for total domination of my back yard, coming up miles from where either was planted.

    • sherry says:

      I have rock gardens all over. I notice that Bishops weed only grows in the shade and snow-in-summer only in the sun. So they grow up to each other and stop. So far they have not invaded the garden part of the yard.

  9. Tara Nolan says:

    Hi Jackie,
    Isn’t it funny when plants don’t behave as you expect them to and other turn out to be bullies? After the spring invasion, I’m not sure if my sweet woodruff survived the stifling summer we had!

  10. Jacalyn Rix says:

    I learn a lot from your articles and peoples’ comments!

    We are in zone 5, with some full sun, 1/2 sun, and shade. We want to replace much of the grass with groundcovers that don’t need mowing and are drought tolerant. It sounds like maybe some of these would work! I do want to avoid the “noxious” kinds. What would you recommend?

  11. Mike Davis says:

    I love the snappy taste of Sylvetta, aka wild arugula, but it’s another plant that can spread faster than one might think (Zone 5). It goes to seed quickly and will grow anywhere–loves the cracks in my sidewalk. Its roots are strong and deep, hard to pull. I have it under control now, but recovering from my initial neglect was a struggle.

  12. suz says:

    let me add two more to what i wrote last year: tradescantia, echoing what linda wrote above; and perennial ageratum, which gets out of control extremely easily, especially in a damp area, and does not play well with others. i put up with it because it provides beautiful late-season color when most everything else is gone. but i have to constantly dig it out/kill it. it goes everywhere. –suz in ohio

  13. Betty says:

    I have sweet woodruff growing under a rhododendron. Do you think it will eventually kill the rhodo? I have another rhodo that has goutweed growing under it. Do you think I can put two layers of cardboard then some mulch pine needles to kill the goutweed or will this kill the rhodo since their roots are so shallow. Thanks.

    • Tara Nolan says:

      Hi Betty,
      I’m not sure the sweet woodruff’s roots would be enough to drown out the rhododendron. I wouldn’t try to kill the goutweed as it could harm the rhodo. I would just pull the weeds from around the base of the rhododendrons!
      Best of luck, Tara

  14. Judy Eberspaecher says:

    Yellow Bleeding Heart (Corydalis Lutea) is a lovely plant that blooms from late April to November or when the heavy frost or snow come. It will take over a garden quickly however it is quite easy to pull out.\\Also Goutweed. My neighbour planted (imagine that!!!) and it keeps creeping across the fence and it is also
    covering the creek bank. That one is worse than Corydalis.

  15. Kathryn Szempruch says:

    Bishop’s Weed, (Aegopodium podagraria) aka lyrical alias “snow on the mountain”, is my garden bad boy. It totally took over my perennial bed and was strangling my monarda, rudbeckia, phlox and penstemmon. I ultimately paid big bucks to have a landscaping crew to come in and dig everything out of the bed and reset the plants minus the dread Bishop’s Weed. Still, there are sprouts here and there. I take my approach from a Bob Marley lyric: “Kill it before it grows”.

  16. Jean Keller says:

    I dug up my store bought Sweet Woodruff (Mmmaybe 6″tall as round) that my husband weed wacked several times, traveled 350 miles to replant in northern Wisconsin. I find it delicate and not invasive, I baby it and damn near talk to it. This is it’s 4th year..same size,

  17. Judy says:

    Ostrich fern can be a serious spreader. We had one in the front garden and every spring I would dig up multiple new plants growing from the ends of runners that had roots spreading out in a wide network. I moved it to a shady space in the backyard where I also planted some sweet woodruff. So far they each seem to be spreading at an equal rate. I would like to move some of the sweet woodruff to another garden that has Jacob’s Ladder growing there to use as a ground cover and keep the soil from drying out. Do you think it would kill the JL?

    • Tara Nolan says:

      Hi Judy, I can’t say for sure, but I know in my mom’s garden, the sweet woodruff seems to have edged out a couple of plants!

    • Pamela Baker says:

      Oh boy, ostrich fern! Harvest them in early spring and you have a DELICIOUS spring veggie….fiddleheads!
      Quite the ‘delicacy ‘ ’round these parts. (Southern Vermont)

  18. Pyewacket says:

    Trumpet vine. It should be declared LEGALLY a noxious weed in every state. Regardless of it’s status according to local law, it is for all practical purposes a noxious invasive plant. I got into it one day with an officious obnoxious annoying “plant expert” in a local so-called nursery (big company with several stores that dominates the market here but they don’t grow ANY of their own plants) over the fact that they carry it. She tried to sell it to me. First she made fun of me because I couldn’t remember the Latin name, then she tried to quibble with me over my use of the term “noxious”, which I was using in its literal sense. I was and am well aware of its alternative use in this regard as a legal term.

    This stuff has been known to pull down houses. I had a problem with it here in the High Sierra desert regions when a neighbor planted it on the back of my fence – a good 100 to 150′ from their back door. This stuff sent runners 50′ under a hellscape of astroturf (which got so hot in the sun that I could feel the heat through the thick rubber soles of my Teva rafting sandals), black plastic and rocks (it was a rental). It was growing up the siding on the shed, which it had damaged, and it was coming up in the rose bushes. And this is DESERT here. Nothing stops it.

    Then this pretentious bimbo at the “garden center” had to colossal temerity to blame ME (remember I didn’t even plant the stuff) for its invasiveness, accusing me of watering my backyard – I was in a rental at the time. The former owner had turned the entire back yard into a hellscape of black plastic, rocks, and astroturf (which got so hot in the sun I could feel the heat coming through my Teva rafting sandals which have quite a thick rubber sole). There was no watering going on back there until you got to the patio which had a small built in bed around it. I fail to see how an invader planted by a neighbor should mean I wouldn’t be ALLOWED to water my own backyard, if there had actually been anything alive back there to water. Sheesh!

    Avoid avoid avoid.

    Beautiful flowers. Unparalleled as a hummingbird attractant. Wish I could take a flamethrower to every single Trumpet Vine plant in the world – assuming a flamethrower would actually kill it, which it will not.

  19. Pamela Baker says:

    Salvia. Of course, it’s in the mint family, so I should have known better. Self sowed and took over my garden and started in on the yard. Then we moved. Phew.

  20. Candace says:

    I wish I would have read this warning before I planted the sweet woodruff! 🙂 So…how to get rid of it? I’ve tried digging it out. All it needs is one tiny root left in the dirt and it’s off and running again. My only solution at this point is to remove everything in the garden bed and wait, killing every little bit of it as it grows back and hope that does the trick. Too much work every year to try and control it. I see no other solution but I don’t know if this will even work. Any ideas? Too bad it’s so invasive – I love the look just not when it’s overtaking every other plant!

  21. Janice Davis says:

    I live in Texas and have about a 13×13 foot garden made of rock in the shape of Texas. It’s about 12 to 15″ tall. I planted caladiums in it and it was doing fairly well, i sprayed with deer repellant and used coyote granules around it. All to no avail—–those sweet little deeries got them !! Now I’m thinking of Sweet Woodruff to fill the garden and wonder how that would work. Any advice is really appreciated

  22. Lucy says:

    Alyssum. I cannot understand why anyone would buy this stuff – it selfseeds like crazy and instead of neat looking plants with purple flowers mine came back every year with masses of straggly white flowered messy looking plants. When I see people picking up flats of new annuals I want to run up and tell them to put them right down again!

  23. Virginia R. says:

    Can’t thank you and your readers enough for providing possible thug plant inductees to Garden Hall of Regrets. Just moved from Zone 10 to Zone 7. Former owners liked “no care” plants and groundcovers. Presently am doing battle with pachysandra. Hate it! Doused in vinegar, covered with landscape fabric layers and mulch… wish me luck! English ivy on hillside is next intended target.

  24. Sandi Alex says:

    I have sweet woodruff that has grown in the most neglected part of my garden for a dozen years, with zero issues. I was so happy with this sweet ground cover, I decided to plant it in a few other areas. BIG mistake. This tiny plant became the monster from HECK. Before I realized what was happening, it choked out some sweet perennials, including a rare heuchera, my bleeding heart, and our favorite flower, the trilliums. Yesterday my husband and I ripped it out of our hillside, and filled a trailer with the sad remains. The thick mat it creates bears no resemblance to the lovely creeper that plays nicely with others under the Japanese Maple. I’ve learned my lesson.

    • Tara Nolan says:

      It’s so interesting how in some parts of the garden sweet woodruff is friendly and gets along with other plants, while in other parts of the garden it can be such a bully!

  25. Dee says:

    Verbena bonariensis, also called Vervain has taken over my flower garden. And I KNEW it would but liked the flowers, sigh….just didn’t know it would do it in 1 year. Will be pulling it out. Grew it from seed too. Also bought plain old green lirope to add to the varigated lirope I brought when we moved to plant on a slope. Oh my gosh! Had no idea it would take over! Getting rid of that too! Apologizing to my well mannered varigated lirope. I too have Sweet Woodruff but it is planted in total shade, only spreading very, very slowly.
    I think many plants we love can be ‘invasive’ like Lambs Ear, Daylilies and Bearded Iris. I can’t keep up with the daylilies and iris. It’s like whats a weed to one person is a wildflower to another person.

  26. Carla says:

    Never ever plant Houttuynia cordata, aka Chameleon. Most invasive plant I’ve ever seen.

  27. Marty says:

    I am looking for something to plant under my semi-dwarf fruit trees, which are located in individual raised beds. Zone 3 becoming 4. Would sweet woodruff still be a bad choice?

    • Tara Nolan says:

      It’s hard to say. I’ve had some people tell me that it behaves in shadier areas. But my experience in full sun is it spread like crazy!

  28. Greg says:

    How well does Sweet Woodruff do next to Bermuda grass? I was looking to plant something that will spread and live in a well shaded area but not try to take over my entire yard.

    • Tara Nolan says:

      I’m not sure to be honest, however I will caution that mine grew between a few plants, so I was trying to pick the shoots out from between. As a groundcover in a well-shaded area, it might behave and stay more contained.

  29. Gardener says:

    I have planted sweet woodruff in VA zone 7A and until last year, it was not spreading. I believe the amount of rain we got in 2018 was a cause that it spread out from the are, but until the last year, I had nice, contained mount. Nonetheless, the biggest pain on my yard is asiatic dayflower planted by previous owner, and it is vigorous, extremely invasive plant that will grow on anything. Additionally, it has a sap and some people get allergic reaction from it.

  30. Carla C Radcliffe says:

    I looked at this site since we are currently suffering a woodruff invasion. We took out a tree and it seemed to get very happy with the increase in sunshine. My other previous problem children are St Johns Wort, Fireweed (it’s got weed right there in the name), some of the Euphorbias (there are so many and most are lovely but we have a tiny feathery one that is impossible to get rid of) and of course ivy. I do wish the plant stores would have a big warning on the labels of the plants that are going to invade.

  31. Shawna Winters says:

    Does anyone have experience with planting garlic chives? Discovered them last summer when I got a load of them free from an abandoned/ waste site. They are so beautiful but I’ve heard they can become a garden’s worst nightmare… I sometimes wake up at night in a sweat wondering if planting them was a mistake lol. I had a terrible experience ridding my garden of sumac and some crazy blue ornamental grass that someone planted there before me. The chives are planted where they get sun until about 1 or 2 o’clock. Any advice appreciated 🙂

    • bill says:

      I was given a pot of chives several years ago, and those little flowering buggers are now all over the yard. They like the shade, tucked up under the mulched boxwoods, and they LOVE the sun, baking in a poor-soil hillside with succulents. Happily, the little bulbs do pull out easily–but they seed like crazy.

  32. Tara Nolan says:

    I have planted regular chives and while they do spread a little, they’ve been easy to keep in check. However a recent article on The Impatient Gardener generated a lot of comments on social media and the post about whether they spread or not… https://www.theimpatientgardener.com/chives/

  33. Ginger says:

    My sweet woodruff in part shade has spread over the winter, but not very much. I also noticed that it mainly spread around/along the driplines that I laid under them mulch.

    With your warning, hopefully I’ll be able to keep it contained. I have pulled out a few of the new, wandering shoots, and noticed that the roots and rhizomes pull up very easily – I guess the roots only grow a few inches deep, so hopefully it will be easier to control than the creeping bellflower invading my garden from a neighbor’s yard, which sends out huge rhizomes more than a foot deep.

  34. PJ says:

    In my garden sweet woodruff has become the bully plant. I have gravel in my garden which it has spread to and almost impossible to get to the roots. I even dig up the earth and it is still happily multiplying. Right now I’ve got it covered in cardboard but it’s still peaking out. Wish I’d found it a home somewhere else.

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