woodruff



woodruff defined in 1912 year

woodruff - WOODRUFF (Asperula odorata);
woodruff - A plant of stars - clusters of little white stars gleaming against a background of large green stars - that is the Sweet Woodruff.

Now, flower-stars are common enough, they meet us everywhere, but leaf-stars are rarely found; one could almost count upon one's fingers the plants that have them. All down the four-grooved stem of the Woodruff are these dark, green, shining stars, their eight rays increasing in size as we pass from flower-clusters to root. Below, the rays are egg-shaped, the rounder end outwards; higher up they become an ordinary pointed ellipse. The edges of the leaves are remarkable in that they are furnished with a roughness, a roughness imperceptible to the naked eye, and scarcely noticeable if one draws the leaf from stem to tip across one's lips; but reverse the direction of drawing and the infinitesimal saw is apparent enough. It is this roughness that gives the plant its scientific name - Asperula. Botanists assert a rather remarkable fact about these stalkless whorled leaves. Two of them only, they say, in each whorl are true leaves, and only in the angle which these leaves make with the stem can flower buds arise. The other six leaf-rays are merely stipules, or leaf appendages which, in this rare case, have developed precisely as if they were true leaves.

The flowers, though they collectively make a good show and are attractive in their fragile delicacy, are individually too small to be examined properly without a lens, but with its aid several points of interest are revealed. The calyx is a plain round ring covered with hairs; the corolla of petals is united into a tube in its lower part, but half-way up spreads out into four pure white rays. Round the tube and set upon it are four very minute stamens, and in the centre of all is the ovary. On this stands the usual column with the rather unusual character of dividing midway into two distinct branches. The flower shows no actual arrangements for cross-fertilisation, but as a faint fragrance is exhaled and an infinitesimal quantity of honey is provided, evidently insects are invited to visit. Apparently however, all they are asked to do is to shake out the pollen from the tiny anthers, so that it may fall down the petal tube and thus reach the forked stigmas.

The petal cross is very lightly attached, and quickly becomes detached, carrying the stamens with it, and the ovary, still wrapped in the rough calyx, is left. It is only the size of a small pin-head, but it swells, and the calyx grows too, together with the hairs which cover it. Later it is possible to see that the ovary carries but two seeds, and that the hairs on its envelope are each hooked. When it is quite ripe and dry it is a rough little ball covered thickly with flexible hooked bristles, white below but black tipped, and these catch on to the fur or feathers of animal or bird that pushes through the undergrowth, and thus the Woodruff disperses its seed.

The Woodruff is a lover of all woods and shady places; its deep green foliage develops best in the dimness where the sunlight penetrates with difficulty. Should the branches overshadowing it be cut away and the full light fall upon it, it loses its colour and rapidly becomes of sickly hue.

The rootstock is but slender, and creeps beneath the surface. The stems rarely exceed a foot in height, their average being eight or nine inches.

But charming as is the Woodruff growing, the special charm by which it lives in our memories is its fragrance when dead. As it withers a sweet scent comes from it, a scent that is often likened to the fragrance of new-mown hay, so in the older, quieter times when the fragrance of herbs meant more than it seems to do to-day, bunches of it were regularly gathered and made up into bundles and garlands, and hung up in houses in the heat of summer, where, says Gerard, "It doth very well attemper the aire, coole and make fresh the place to the delight and comfort of such as are therein." For the same reason it was hung up in churches, as we know from churchwardens' accounts four hundred years old, and on St. Barnabas' Day, as on St. Peter's, bunches of box, Woodruff, lavender and roses found a place there. Then, too,

"We plant our graves with Woodruff, and still on holy days
Woodruff on country altars gives out her scent for praise."

Woodruff likewise, with thyme, groundsel and St. John's wort was reputed to have the honour of forming the fragrant bed of the Virgin Mary. Our grandmothers were wont to dry it and lay it among their house linen. It is this scent of the withered plant, a scent that it retains for years, that gives it its second scientific name of odorata. It was also put into wine from the very old idea that those drinking it were made merry. Culpepper repeated this belief. "Woodruff," he says in his "Herball," "cheers the heart, makes men merry, helps melancholy, and opens the stoppings of the liver." Therefore it was also known as "Cordialis." In Germany it is used for flavouring wines and liqueurs, an alliance between Rhine wine and Sweet Woodruff being responsible for a specially delightful May drink.

The name Woodruff, by which we generally know it, is due to the leaves appearing as little "ruffs" on the stems. Old variations of this name are "Woodrooffe," "Woodrowe," and "Woodrowell." Here, again, the ring of leaves with their superficial resemblance to the rowel of a spur is responsible for the name. The country children have for ages sung the spelling of this plant in rhyme: -

"Double U, double O, double D.E,
R.O double U, double F.E."

The Woodruff, together with the squinancywort, the gallium, wild madder, and ladies' bedstraw, belong to a small group of plants - the Stellatæ - which are the only representatives in Britain, or, indeed, in Europe, of a great and important order - the Rubiaceæ - important in that many of its members are of great service to man. Thus the coffee tree, Peruvian bark and quinine are its near relatives. It is the presence, though in a much slighter degree, of some similar principle in the Woodruff that gives it its value both as a cordial and as a May wine.

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