16 February 2013


Under the beech trees which are so much a part of my local landscape, in April and May, woodruff reaches its best. This is a member of bedstraw family, Galium, with the specific name odoratum: the plant is rich in coumarin, which also gives scent to new-mown hay, sweet alison and the man orchid. Coumarin is toxic, with a bitter taste, and is an appetite-suppressant in mammals, which may explain why woodruff is one of the few plants to be found abundantly in the open understorey below beeches.

The living woodruff is almost scentless, the coumarin being released only as the foliage dries. The plant can remain fragrant for years and for centuries was used to sweeten the air in houses and churches; the dried leaves were placed among linen, in pillows and mattresses, between the pages of books, and even in the cases of pocket-watches.

The etymology of the second part of the name is not as obvious as I used to think. The Oxford English Dictionary says it comes from the Old English rofe or rife, “of unknown meaning”; this word can denote a wheel or something that creeps or spreads. Skeat links it to the Old High German ruofe, meaning “sweet-smelling”.

The name occurs in the poem “Springtime” (1310):

A-way is huere wynter wo, when woderove springeth

(Away is their winter woe, when woodruff springs)

It’s only by coincidence, then, that the plant, like Sir Walter Raleigh, wears a ruff. As a schoolboy I assumed otherwise. And although I studied the flowers and stem and leaves under a hand-lens, I knew almost nothing of substance about the woodruff. This state of ignorance continues today, just as I am still substantially ignorant about all living things: their evolution, genetics and biochemistry, and the subtle tactics and strategies each has adopted to defend itself from parasites and predators, to preserve, replicate and spread its DNA. That such processes culminate in something we find beautiful is just as much a mystery.

All I really know is that I am very glad to see the carpets of woodruff in spring, and when I see them I know my winter woe is away for sure.


Stphaníe said...

Dear Richard... Yours is my all-time favorite blog! It never ceases to amaze me how much I can learn each and every time I visit. I am grateful that you share your thoughts and insights!

Moe The Cat said...

Richard, is this the first chapter in "Nature Writings, Volume 2"?

Richard Herley said...

Hi Moe! No, this is the first chapter of "Adventures in Etymology". (Only kidding!)