It was a garden tour that introduced me to sweet woodruff, an elegant looking groundcover in a lovely, shaded corner side yard. And a trip to Germany made me aware of its culinary uses and popularity in Europe. Subsequent to my new-to-me plant discovery, I found one at a garden center and brought it home. I can’t remember why, but I planted my sweet woodruff in a part of the garden that gets a fair bit of sun throughout the day. The plant did okay—for awhile. And then it got a bit feisty, spreading and popping up in the foliage of some surrounding plants. That same year, during an especially arid summer, it completely died.
That’s probably because sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) thrives in part shade to full shade. This perennial herb (the herb section is where you are likely to find it at the garden center), is much more suited for a woodland or shade garden. Hardy down to about USDA zone 4 or 5 (and evergreen in the southern states), the foliage is shaped like green starbursts. The leaves are also described as “whorled.” This term is used to refer to three or more equally spaced leaves that grow from a node. (Our friend, Galium odoratum, has six to eight). Little white, fragrant flowers appear all over the plant in late spring. And the foliage remains a vibrant, deep green throughout the growing season.
Planting sweet woodruff
If you’re looking for a lush groundcover that will thrive in part shade to shade, sweet woodruff is a great choice. It will spread and provide a nice carpet of greenery. It’s also a pretty plant selection for rock gardens, shady hills, borders, and woodland gardens. And because it’s shallow rooting, sweet woodruff is a solid option to plant under trees, where roots can get in the way, preventing a gardener from digging deeply to plant. Add it between stepping stones or use as edging plants, which look lovely cascading over rocks. In a cottage garden, sweet woodruff will blend in well with a naturalized aesthetic.
Because of its monochromatic green foliage, the plant displays well among other interesting foliage for shade, such as lamium, different colors of foamflower, and Japanese forest grass.
I find sweet woodruff plants more common to come across than seeds. If you do find yourself in possession of sweet woodruff seeds, they can be direct-sown in late winter or early spring while there are still frosts in the forecast. Germination can take anywhere from 30 to 65 days. Once seedlings appear, keep the soil well watered until the plant is established.
If you’ve brought home a plant, dig it into a shady area with rich, well-draining soil—though it will tolerate moist conditions, too.
Maintaining a patch of sweet woodruff
When planted in the (ahem) proper conditions, sweet woodruff will remain green throughout the growing season. It does sometimes go dormant during an especially hot summer. The plant grows to be about six to eight inches (15 to 20 cm) tall and spreads about 12 inches (30 cm). Plants form a pretty thick carpet of foliage that is reasonably easy to manage if you keep on top of it. However, it does like to spread when it’s happy in its environment. To thin or contain the plant, pull out a clump, being sure to get all the underground rhizomes. You can then send it to the compost, re-plant elsewhere, or share the newly dug-out plant with a fellow gardener.
As I mentioned, at one point in my sunny garden, my sweet woodruff became a garden bully. This would be fine if it were planted as a groundcover with nothing else around. But I had to pluck it out of my dianthus one spring, as well as keep it from encroaching on my miniature lilac. I also rescued my delosperma from a hostile takeover. But then, as I mentioned, it did not like the heat and drought of that summer, so it did not survive.
10 interesting facts about sweet woodruff
- The plant is native to north and central Europe, as well as North Africa.
- Sweet woodruff is also referred to as sweetscented bedstraw. It’s worth noting there are many varieties of bedstraw under the Galium genus. But because of its pleasant scent, the bedstraw descriptor for sweet woodruff is sweetscented.
- Bedstraw was once used to stuff mattresses and pillows.
- The plant is unappetizing to deer, slugs, and snails.
- Sweet woodruff leaves contain a compound called coumarin. The scent, which is similar to freshly mown hay, can be used as a moth and mosquito deterrent.
- Because of that specific scent, sweet woodruff leaves can be dried and used as potpourri, and you’ll often find it used in herbal tea.
- In Europe, Galium odoratum is used to flavor everything from candies to cordial.
- Sweet woodruff is tolerant to juglone. If you’re looking for a groundcover to plant beneath a black walnut tree, this is a pretty option.
- Though flowers only appear for a short time in April and May, the sweet-smelling blooms will attract pollinators, like bees and butterflies.
- Sweet woodruff is an ingredient in May wine (because that’s when the flowers grow). In Germany, this wine punch is called maibowle.
Find other groundcover and shade garden options
- Evergreen groundcover plants: 20 choices for year-round interest
- How to care for hostas in pots: Tips to help this popular shade plant thrive
- Herbs that grow in shade: 10 delicious choices
- Blue hosta varieties for the perennial garden
- Shade-loving perennial flowers: 15 beautiful choices
- Brighten up dark areas of the garden with annual flowers for shade
Sweet Woodruff is one of my favorite plants. It’s tough and useful and smells wonderful. It will grow in the deepest shade and spread, but still let bulbs through. I’m so glad you’re helping it beat its “bad rap”.