All About Thyme
  A Weekly Calendar of Times & Seasonings

  Celebrating the Mysteries, Magic, and Myths of Herbs
Susan Wittig Albert  
Special Feature, May 7, 2018  

Sweet, Sweet Woodruff

From my youth I recall that elusive smell of woods in spring—a sweetness ascending from mold and decay but with the breath of young life rising from it. That is the odor that permeates the house when May wine is poured into the May bowl.
—Adelma Grenier Simmons, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons

May is the traditional month for May wine. This drink comes from Germany, where the sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) carpets the spring woodlands with starry white blossoms and whorled leaves. The odd-sounding name woodruff grew out of the earlier wuderove, or "wood-wheel" (rove comes from the French rouelle, wheel, referring to the circlet of leaves around the stem). The plant contains coumarin, and when it is dried smells like freshly-mown vanilla grass. It has long been valued for potpourris and perfumes and is a favorite in sachets. It was once used to stuff mattresses and pillows (hence the name bedstraw). During the Middle Ages, the herb gained a reputation as a wound healer and was used to treat digestive and liver problems. For gardeners with a shady, wooded area, sweet woodruff can be an ideal groundcover.

May Wine
But it's the herb's centuries-old use as a spring drink that we look forward to every year. Since the custom began in Germany, it's traditional to use Rhine wine. Here's an easy recipe to serve a crowd.

1 gallon Rhine wine (use half champagne, if you like)
12-16 sprigs of sweet woodruff (dried overnight in the oven with the pilot light on)
1 package frozen strawberries, thawed
1 cup sugar
fresh whole strawberries

Steep the sweet woodruff in the wine for 3-6 days. Chill before serving. Remove the herb and pour chilled wine into a punchbowl over a block of ice. Mash thawed strawberries with a cup of sugar and stir into the wine. Add champagne if you wish, and garnish each cup with a fresh strawberry.

To make another herb drinke—Orange-flower Brandy. Take a gallon of French Brandy, boil a pound of orange flowers a little while, and put them in, save the water and with that make a syrup to sweeten it.

—E. Smith, The Complete Housewife, 1736

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Who's Susan Albert?

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of two recent memoirs: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days and Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. Her fiction, which has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, includes A Wilder Rose (a novel about Rose Wilder Lane's collaboration with Laura Ingalls Wilder in the writing of the Little House books); the China Bayles mysteries; the Darling Dahlias mysteries; the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter; and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. She is founder and past president of the Story Circle Network, a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, and Honorary President (2012-2014) of the Herb Society of America. More

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She's the beloved fictional herbalist in Susan Wittig Albert's popular mystery series, set in Pecan Springs TX. For more about her books, visit

For more about herbs and the passing seasons, read China Bayles' Book of Days.

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