Sweet Woodruff, a shady plant with a sweet taste

The Baltimore Urban Forager returns!

Woodruff  Wild

The Germans use Woodruff, which can be found in Baltimore, to give white wine a sweet, woodsy flavor.

Photo by: Hermann Boehner

Even though I, your Baltimore Urban Forager, am still in Germany on a work sabbatical (haven’t you missed me?), I’ve been thinking about my return in August and on the lookout for edible wild stuff that also grows in Baltimore.

Woodruff or “Waldmeister,” “The Master of the Wood,” is one such plant. It’s foraged in Germany in May and still perfect for picking in Baltimore right now.

The Germans harvest Woodruff just when its delicate white flowers are blooming on spikes at the center of its fanned leaves, using it to sweeten white wine, which they also spruce up with champagne and lemon slices.

I learned about this tradition from my German teacher Cathrin Krueger who sent me a recipe for Waldmeisterbowle or Maibowle (May punch). “Bowle” looks and sounds like “bowl” as in, wouldn’t you like to make a bowl of Woodruff punch? I wanted to and I did!

The Look-a-like Plant That Faked Me Out

Woodruff prefers cool, wooded locations, and in Baltimore, many people use it in the shady corners of their gardens. But a word of caution: Galium odoratum is not the easiest plant to find or recognize. In fact, I made my first major mistake of identification as a forager trying to find this elusive “Master of the Wood.” But I lived to tell the tale.

I picked a handful of it (I thought) along a bike trail in Erlangen, dried it in the sun, and then let it soak for 30 minutes in a liter of German Riesling I had emptied out into a bowl. As Cathrin recommended, I added a bottle of chilled Champagne to the Woodruff-soaked Riesling and was about to serve the punch in celebration of my partner’s birthday.

 Lupine, which looks quite a bit like Woodruff. Don't be fooled! (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Lupine, which looks quite a bit like Woodruff. Don't be fooled! (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Luckily, our friend Hermann arrived at the party and informed us that what was soaking in the Riesling was definitely not “Waldmeister.” We all ceremoniously threw our “May punch” into the bushes.

(Fortunately, I had a backup – some edible hibiscus blossoms, over which we poured another bottle of champagne and toasted the birthday girl without further mishap.)

What I picked, it turned out, was Lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), a plant that also has fanned leaves. Its leaves are much larger. When blooming, the long conical purple flower makes it impossible to mistake for Woodruff.

If only I had searched a few days later, after the lupine had shot up its purple flower spikes, I never would have made the mistake.

Over the course of the next week, Hermann easily found Woodruff on a hike in the woods. Other friends present at my unforgettable “great Maibowle fiasco,” similarly found Woodruff growing in the shade of the woods they hiked through in Franken, Switzerland, near where we live in Erlangen.

When lupine is in bloom, you'd never mistake it for woodruff, which has tiny white flowers. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

When lupine is in bloom, you'd never mistake it for woodruff, which has tiny white flowers. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

So I finally served Woodruff Punch while at an old 19th-century spa just outside the famous walled medieval city called Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

We drank it with a colleague at a conference on Traditional Chinese Medicine, where I was giving some talks. Woodruff is said to have gentle sedative properties and to possibly cause headaches in high doses, due to coumarin, the chemical compound that also makes it so fragrant.

But we enjoyed it as the Germans do, in moderation, giving a sweet fragrance and taste to our white wine. The champagne makes it festive and spreads out the flavor. Germans also use Woodruff to flavor beer (Berliner Weisse), brandy, sausages, jelly, a vodka-based jam, ice cream, and herbal teas. Maybe we’ll try those someday too.


“Woodruff Punch” or “Maibowle”

After drying the Woodruff leaves and flowers overnight, let them soak in one liter of white wine for 20-30 minutes (according to how sweet smelling and tasting you’d like it).

Then add an equal amount of champagne and, if you wish, lemon slices. Just make sure you found the real Waldmeister!

Marta pouring the Champagne into the Woodruff Punch filled glasses.

Marta pouring the Champagne into the Woodruff Punch filled glasses.

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  • Flamingo Hall

    Great to see the smiling face of our much-missed Urban Forager.   I’ll be on the lookout for woodruff now!  I remember reading a fun book years ago, title was “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”.  Can’t remember the author’s name….. ???

    • Susannedeluxe

      Euell Gibbons!

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