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Sweet woodruff or Gallium odoratum is a shade-loving plant native to Eurasia and parts of North Africa. Historically, the plant has been used in a number of medicinal and culinary preparations, although most people today grow sweet woodruff as an ornamental plant. Some garden suppliers carry sweet woodruff, and the plant can also be grown from cuttings and shoots, for gardeners who know someone with a patch of sweet woodruff. You may also see the plant growing in the wild, depending on where you live, since it spreads and volunteers readily, even in areas where it is not native.
This plant has a distinctive slightly sweet odor which reminds some people of freshly-cut hay, hence the name. It is also sometimes called “wild baby's breath,” referencing the small clusters of white flowers which resemble those of the cultivated plant known as baby's breath, and it is also known as Master of the Woods or simply woodruff. The plant typically grows very well in USDA zones four through eight, and can sometimes be found outside this range as well.
The ideal location for sweet woodruff is a woodland, since woodlands typically have the slightly acidic, well-drained soil which this plant prefers, along with the shade. In the garden, people grow sweet woodruff under large shrubs and trees, and in regions which are shaded by structures, rocks, fences, and other obstacles. The plant often thrives in environments where other plants struggle, thanks to its ability to survive in slightly hostile soil.
Sweet woodruff is a sprawling groundcover, developing long stems and whorls of narrow leaves which totally surround the stem. When well-nourished, sweet woodruff can grow to around eight inches (20 centimeters) in height, and it can sprawl out considerably in the garden. In fact, some people regard sweet woodruff as an invasive plant, because once it establishes itself, it can be very difficult to eradicate. This is something to consider when planting sweet woodruff, as the plant can overwhelm other plantings if it is not given enough room to grow.
One of sweet woodruff's most famous historical uses was as a flavoring in German May Wine, although the plant has also been used in sedative teas and various other medical preparations. Sweet woodruff can actually be dangerous in high concentrations, and should only be used medicinally under supervision from an experienced herbalist or doctor. Growing woodruff, however, doesn't require an extensive knowledge of herbal medicine, and the plant can make a great green groundcover in shady areas where other plants seem to have difficulty thriving.