Star Grass

29th April 2013
This morning I spotted the young growth coming through of my all time favourite plant  Woodruff  Galium odoratum so I’ve decided to post this information which originally appeared in our newsletter last year.
Sweet Woodruff Galium odoratum
Normally found in shady woodlands, particularly on chalky soil in southern England,  the young growth is just emerging and normally by the end of May, the pure white flowers shine out like stars amongst the vivid greens of the spring time woodlands, giving rise to its other name of Star Grass. It is also known as Sweet Woodruff and in the 16th century was called Woodrove
Similar in appearance to its close relative Cleavers G. aparine, Woodruff is a more upright plant and only reaches a height of 30-40cm. It also lacks the sticky hairs, and is a slightly darker green than Cleavers.
The plant when fresh has a slight smell to it, but collect a few sprigs and dry them and you will be pervaded with this wonderful fresh, vanilla like, sweet aroma.  Books describe the smell as “new mown hay” which it does indeed resemble.
The chemical responsible for this smell is called Coumarin, or more formerly benzopyrone, which can be found in a variety of plants such as Tonka beans, Cassia cinnamon, Sweet Clover, Vanilla Grass, and even strawberries, cherries and apricots.  It has been used by the perfume industry for over 150 years, indeed around 90% of perfumes contain it although these days it is made synthetically.
Sweet Woodruff can be dried and used either on its own or mixed with other fragrant herbs as Pot Pourri.  It was traditionally one of the “strewing plants”. In days gone by, when we shared our houses with livestock, it was mixed with the straw on the floor so that its sweet fragrance was released when walked over to mask less pleasant aromas! It was also used in wardrobes and airing cupboards to deter moths and give a lovely smell to clothing, the leaf whorls where used as book marks and in Georgian times it was added to pocket watch cases so that whenever you checked the time you received their fragrance.
The other use for the plant is as a flavouring.
In the past it has been used as an additive to flavour tobacco.  It is widely used to flavour alcoholic drinks……on the continent they flavour sweetened, white wine with woodruff as a traditional May time drink often served with wild strawberries. In Germany you can by a syrup flavoured with Woodruff called Waldermeister.   You can make your own version of the Polish flavoured vodka called Zabrowka (which uses another plant, Bison Grass,  that contains Coumarin) by simply infusing a couple of sprigs of Woodruff in a bottle of vodka for two weeks.  It goes particularly well with apple and a few sprigs in a carton of apple juice for a day or two completly transforms the flavour.
It is sometimes used in savoury dishes, it goes particularly well with rabbit but more frequently it is used in desserts. The vanilla like flavour goes well in ice creams, custards and panacotta.
As a food item there have been some concerns about ingestion of coumarin. In high concentrations it has been known to cause headaches and in some sensitive individuals it can cause reversible liver damage which easily rights its self,  but it is considered to be safe to consume foods which naturally contain coumarin.  On the other hand coumarins are associated with many health benefits such as being a blood thinner, anti-HIV, anti-tumor, anti-hypertension, anti-arrhythmia, anti-osteoporosis, pain relief, preventing asthma and antisepsis.
Generally speaking using Sweet Woodruff every now and again shouldn’t be a cause for concern and it would be a shame not to sample the wonderful flavour it gives to drinks and puddings.
It is however important to make sure that when you dry the plant you do so quickly to ensure the no fungi or mould growth occurs as it is possible that the fungi can convert the coumarins in the plant to a chemical called dicoumarol which is a powerful blood thinner which can cause internal bleeding…… is sometimes used as rat killer!
Kev Palmer

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