I WONDER WHY SWEET WOODRUFF, perhaps the most graceful groundcover for shade, is so completely unsung? Surely its lack of celebrity is not my fault, since I bore my fellow gardeners with its virtues. Yet so beguiling is this Gallium odoratum that I refuse to see it neglected any longer. It is, in fact, the coolest-looking hot-season groundcover I know:
In the dappled shade of my Woodland Garden, Sweet Woodruff, pictured above, makes the perfect foil for the bed of Japanese painted ferns. I have also seen it used to good effect in my friend Randy’s garden; there, great sweeps of it flourish along pathways in quite deep shade. The soft, star-like whorls of pale green foliage invite touching, especially when the tips are lit from May through June with tiny, tubular white flowers.
As for culture, simply amend the soil with copious quantities of leaf mold to begin with, insure moisture with deep summer soakings and what do you get? Well, two things: a groundcover that keeps its handsome looks from spring emergence to winter departure (it is semi-evergreen), and the essential ingredient for a refreshing brew called May Wine.
May Wine is nothing more than a white wine punch infused with Sweet Woodruff. I can tell you the concoction has distinct German credentials. It is part of the tradition of the maypole, an annual ritual that brought together the unmarried women and men of a village. Both the flowers on the maypole and the fresh herbs in the wine honored youth and springtime.
Now, you might be surprised that Gallium can flavor anything, for freshly picked it offers neither taste nor scent. But when permitted to steep in a crisp Riesling for several hours, something magical happens. The wine becomes intensely aromatic, with hints of honey, vanilla, and herbs.
Here is an easy recipe for May Wine, one you can make today and then drink tonight:
Pour a half bottle of white wine (preferably a Riesling) into a carafe or jar. Add five sprigs of fresh Sweet Woodruff. Cover, and let the two mingle in the refrigerator for about 10 hours. To serve, strain into goblets, float a fresh strawberry atop each glass, and enjoy, knowing that you are perpetuating an ancient — and definitely pagan — fertility rite.
And that’s Sweet Woodruff for you, a plant that makes a speedy, graceful carpet of green in the garden, and a flavorful wine for a springtime gathering. The maypole, of course, is optional.
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