My Favorite Groundcover for Shade: Sweet Woodruff

When you think of groundcovers for shady areas of your garden, you probably think of either ivy or pachysandra. And both of those are nice, reliable choices. But for my money, I’ll take a fragrant carpet of sweet woodruff instead.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is an herb that spreads via runners and seed, forming a dense green carpet. It’s not overly aggressive, but will spread nicely within a few years. It does best in areas that get partial to full shade and have moderately moist soil. I have a few clumps of sweet woodruff in my front garden, on the north side of my house, beneath a large birch tree and right near the gutter downspout. They absolutely thrive in that area. So if you’re dealing with an area in which other plants just seem to rot due to moisture, try sweet woodruff there. It’s also a great plant for the front of a garden bed, where it will provide a very pretty, low-maintenance edging.

Sweet woodruff grows to about a foot tall, tops, but usually stays around six to eight inches tall. In spring (mid-May in the Detroit area) you can expect to see plenty of delicate, four-petaled blooms dotting the plants, held slightly aloft on thin stems. The foliage is arranged in whorls of six to eight leaves. While the flowers are attractive, the leaves are the real treasures on this plant. They contain the most fragrance, and provide a nice groundcover and backdrop for other plantings.

Uses for Sweet Woodruff

The leaves of sweet woodruff are at their most fragrant when they’re dried. They have a clean, hay-like, slightly sweet scent that is popular in potpourri, and has even been used in perfumes. It’s also an effective insect repellent — you can place it in furniture, closets, under rugs, or in cabinets to keep bugs away and make your home smell fresh at the same time. You can also make a tea from sweet woodruff by steeping a tablespoon of fresh leaves in a cup of boiling water. This tea is said to help soothe upset stomachs, but it’s a refreshing drink whether you have an upset stomach or not.

Perhaps the best use of all for sweet woodruff: May Wine! Joey of The Village Voice, who is one of my favorite Michigan garden bloggers, has shared a great recipe for May Wine Champagne Punch over at her blog. It sounds delicious!

Propagating Sweet Woodruff

You can propagate sweet woodruff by dividing existing plants and transplanting the divisions, or by sowing seed in early spring, after your last frost date.

I love getting more than one use out of a plant. I appreciate that sweet woodruff is not only an attractive groundcover, but fragrant and useful as well.

Now Blooming: Lilacs

The lilacs in my garden are just starting to bloom, and their scent never fails to remind me that I really should plant more of them. These old-fashioned beauties are well-deserving of a place in your yard. Aside from the fragrant blooms in late spring, lilacs have very attractive, deep green, heart-shaped leaves. You can let your lilac grow tall and wild, or you can prune it to keep it more manageable. And if you’re looking for varieties that require little care, there are lilacs available for you, too.

Lilacs take me back to my grandmother’s back yard on Detroit’s East Side, where a row of them stood sentry on her alley fence line. They were huge, overgrown, and wild — and I loved them! You could crawl inside the hedge and sit in the shade. In late May, when the weather was warm and the lilacs were blooming, that was the best place in the entire world to spend a lazy afternoon.

Lilacs require very little care after they’re established. Regular pruning will keep them from taking over your garden, and deadheading the flowers after they have finished blooming will increase the number of blooms you get next year. Lilacs can develop powdery mildew if they’re planted in an area without much air circulation. To improve conditions if mildew becomes a problem, try pruning out some of the branches to increase air flow, and consider moving any plants that are encroaching on your lilac’s space. You can also spray once a week or so with a baking soda spray to prevent powdery mildew. This is not something I’ve had to do in my garden, but if you have issues with powdery mildew most years, it may be worth doing just to nip the problem in the bud.

The best way to ensure that your lilac will be happy (and make you happy in return!) is to select the right variety.

Favorite Lilacs for Michigan Gardens

  • Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) — These are the lilacs that grew along my grandmother’s fence, and are most likely the one most people think of when they think “lilac.” They can get quite large, but make a magnificent hedge, and their light purple (lilac…) flowers are very fragrant.
  • ‘President Lincoln’ — If you’re looking for a fragrant shrub that has bluish colored blossoms, ‘President Lincoln’ might be a good fit for you. This is another classic lilac variety that gets quite large — about eight feet wide by ten feet tall.
  • ‘Palibin’ — Also known as ‘Dwarf Korean Lilac,’ ‘Palibin’ is a great option for those of us who have small gardens, or who are unable to devote a large amount of space to a lilac. With very little pruning (I prune mine maybe once every three years or so, tops), ‘Palibin’ maintains its compact form, growing roughly three feet wide by about three feet tall. The best thing about this lilac: it is a proficient bloomer. ‘Palibin’ is loaded with fragrant, pinkish-purple blossoms every year. Its small leaves are much more round than traditional lilac leaves, and, as a bonus, turn a pretty coppery color in autumn.
  • ‘Mt. Baker’ — If you’re looking for a lilac that blooms white, look for ‘Mt. Baker,’ a large lilac (eight by ten feet, roughly) that blooms in mid to late May. Note, however, that the white lilacs tend to be less fragrant than the purple ones.

Lilacs are best planted in fall, but early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, will do as well. Be forewarned, though: once you’ve experienced the fragrance of a lilac in full bloom, it may be hard to limit yourself to just one!

For more about lilac care and propagation, check out my Lilac Plant Profile on In the Garden Online.




A Visit to the Anna Whitcomb Conservatory, Detroit

If you are a plant lover and you’re near the city of Detroit, you’re missing out if you don’t make the trek to Belle Isle (near downtown Detroit) to visit the Anna Whitcomb Conservatory. We go several times a year, and every time we go, I get so caught up in gawking at the plants that I forget to take photos! This time, I was determined to capture at least some of it. I didn’t get any plant names, mostly because I didn’t take the time to search for the plant labels.

About the Conservatory

The Anna Whitcomb Conservatory was founded in 1904, and contains several unique rooms, including the desert habitat, the jungle habitat, a fern grotto and a display garden that changes seasonally. The exterior of the conservatory boasts a newly-restored water lily pond as well as extensive perennial gardens. The conservatory and its gardens are largely maintained by volunteers–and they do an amazing job. I can honestly say I’ve never gone to the conservatory and thought “wow, this looks a little rough.” It is absolute heaven once the weather turns cold.

Entering the Conservatory

The first (and largest) room of the conservatory is the tropical plant habitat. The palm trees here are magnificent—in fact, they’re a little too magnificent. The conservatory just finished an extensive period of repairs and upgrades, including replacing several broken or cracked panes of glass. These palms are in danger of breaking right through the conservatory roof. This will be their final year, and then they’ll be taken out and replaced with younger, smaller specimens.

There are several large banana trees in this area. Besides the luxurious foliage, we saw several bunches of green bananas as well as a couple of flower buds.

The Fern Grotto

The fern grotto is one of my favorite rooms in the conservatory. It is serene and cool. Everywhere you look, you are rewarded with another play of texture against texture. I could honestly spend hours just sitting on the little cast iron bench in this room.

The fern grotto from another angle. You used to be able to walk down a short flight of steps to meander down among the ferns, but they ended up gating off the stairs due to concerns over lawsuits (the moist air in this room is perfect for growing moss—pretty to look at, not so great when you slip on it!).

The Orchids

If I had to choose one spot to visit in the conservatory, it would be the orchid room. The Whitcomb Conservatory (which is owned by the city of Detroit) has a huge orchid collection. In fact, the orchid collection in the Whitcomb is considered to be the largest municipally-owned collection of orchids in the country. I didn’t check names again (too awed to bother reading…) so I’ll just let you enjoy the orchids. All I did was stand there staring. The kids and husband had to move me along :-)

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the Whitcomb! To learn more, check out their website.