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.