The Health Benefits of Woodruff

For Wound Healing and Inflammation

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum (L.) Scop.) is a creeping perennial plant in the Rubiaceae family, that thrives in the shade. Sweet woodruff is a native plant from Europe, Africa, and Asia, but it grows throughout many regions of North America as well. The plant typically blooms with white starry flowers in the late spring. The leaves are emerald green and when dried, they are said to have a pleasant smell like newly mown hay, honey, and vanilla. This hay-like fragrance comes from woodroof’s coumarin (a potentially toxic compound found in many different plant species).

Historically, sweet woodruff was used to induce sweating, as an antispasmodic, and as a sedative. The dried leaves are commonly used as a fragrance, in perfumes, or steeped in hot water to make a tea. Woodruff is also used to flavor foods such as wine, juice, beer and more. Some people use woodruff on the skin to lower swelling and promote wound healing. The leaves and flowers have been traditionally used to treat a variety of conditions, including circulatory problems, liver, stomach and gallbladder disorders, and more. But the use of woodruff for health benefits has started to taper off in recent years, due to reports of the herb’s potentially toxic side effects.

Other common names for sweet woodruff include master of the wood, waldmeister, woodruff, woodward, and sweet-scented bedstraw.

Health Benefits

Woodruff has traditionally been used for many health benefits, but the medical research evidence does not back the safety or efficacy of its use for many conditions such as:

  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Hysteria
  • Insomnia (trouble sleeping)
  • Migraine headaches
  • Cough and congestion
  • Hemorrhoids and other types of swelling
  • Skin disorders
  • Liver and gallbladder conditions
  • Urinary tract disorders
  • Cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) problems
  • Varicose veins
  • Hemorrhoids
  • More

Modern-day herbalists use woodruff as a laxative and to treat arthritis, but the clinical research data does not back the efficacy or safety of woodroof in the treatment of these or other medical conditions.

Studies

In animal studies, woodruff was found to inhibit swelling in induced paw edema and help heal second-degree burn wounds.  A rat study demonstrated wound healing from woodruff’s antioxidant properties.

How Does it Work?

Woodruff has chemicals called coumarins that are thought to lower inflammation and work as an agent to treat various types of bacterial infections. Coumarins are said to have several health-promoting properties including:

  • Antimicrobial (kills germs like bacteria)
  • Antiviral (kills viruses)
  • Anti-inflammatory (lowers swelling)
  •  Antidiabetic (lowers blood sugar levels)
  •  Antioxidant (boosts the immune system)

Other health-promoting components of woodruff include various tannins, flavonoids, and anthraquinones, all of which lend themselves to the antibacterial, antiviral, and pain-relieving properties of woodruff.

Possible Side Effects

Sweet woodruff contains coumarin which has potential toxic effects.

When used for extended periods of time, woodruff has been known to cause side effects including:

  • Headaches
  • Blackouts
  • Liver damage

Toxicity

Woodruff was banned in the 1980s in Germany due to apprehension about its toxic potential due to the plant’s compounds called coumarin. Past clinical research studies have shown that eating too many foods with coumarin may increase the risk of cancer and result in liver damage.

Because of these studies, the FDA deemed that foods containing coumarin are toxic. But more recently toxicology studies demonstrated a low incidence of toxicity and carcinogenicity (cancer-causing) effects, and that coumarins may even have an anti-cancer effect.

Contraindications

Contraindications apply when a specific drug, herbal medicine, or other supplement (or treatment) should not be used together. Sweet woodruff is contraindicated during:

  • Pregnancy: There is not enough reliable clinical research data to prove woodruff’s safety during pregnancy.
  • Breastfeeding: There is not enough reliable clinical research data to prove woodruff’s safety for infants who are breastfeeding.
  • Bleeding disorders: Woodruff is thought to decrease the normal blood clotting time, which could predispose a person with bleeding disorders to bruising and excessive bleeding
  • Surgical procedures: Woodruff should be withheld for two weeks prior to and after surgery to prevent bleeding.

Medications

Woodruff may interfere with the therapeutic action of some medications. Woodruff is, therefore, contraindicated with drugs, such as those that slow blood clotting, these include:

Anyone who is taking any type of medication (prescription or over-the-counter) should consult with the prescribing physician or other health care provider before taking woodruff or any other medicinal herb.

Although the coumarin levels are said to be low in woodruff, any person with cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease should be monitored for any type of adverse reaction that may occur when taking woodruff along with any type of conventional prescription medications.

Dosage and Preparation

Preparation

Woodruff is available in several forms, including a dried herb and a liquid extract. Woodruff is strongly scented, therefore, the herb is commonly used to add its scent to potpourris and perfumes. The dried leaves of woodruff are commonly used to make an herbal tea.

Woodruff’s flowers are sweetly scented, and they are commonly used to flavor wine, juice, beer, ice cream, jelly, and tea. Woodruff is also added to season foods such as gelatins, puddings, and candy. As far as flavoring is concerned, the most popular preparation of woodruff in food is its seasoning component in May wine—a common beverage that is served at a German festival called “Maiwein.” The festival is held each year to celebrate the arrival of spring and the celebration of life and fertilityMay wine is comprised of woodruff, soaked in sweet wine, with some vermouth and bitters added.

When flavoring spiced wine with woodruff, it’s recommended to use an amount that would have less than 5 parts per million (ppm) of coumarin. This translates to 3 to 3.5 grams of fresh woodruff per liter of wine (or other type of beverage being flavored).

To make a tea from woodruff leaves, use a teaspoon of dried woodruff, or a small handful of fresh leaves, to 1 cup of boiling water. Steep the leaves in the water for 10 to 15 minutes before drinking.

Dosage

The right dose of woodruff (or any other herbal supplement) depends on many factors, including a person’s age, weight, health condition and more. Clinical research studies are conducted to decipher the safe dose for each of these variable factors; but it takes many high quality studies to gather enough data to definitively prove the safety and effectiveness of drugs and herbal supplements.

Currently there is not enough clinical research evidence to determine the safe range of dosages for woodruff. Therefore, it’s important to follow the directions on the package insert, as well as the prescribing physician's (or other health care provider’s) instruction when taking woodruff.  

What to Look For

When purchasing woodruff (or any other herbal supplement) look for a product that is certified organic, ethically, wild-harvested, all-natural, and certified by a third party organization such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.com. These institutions report on the purity and potency of herbal/medicinal products.

Other Questions

What is are the optimal growing conditions for woodruff?

Woodruff prefers shaded or partially shaded areas with moist soil, but does not prefer to be kept wet consistently. The plant can tolerate short drought periods and prefers soil that drains well.

Are the flowers from the woodruff plant edible?

Yes, the flowers are commonly used for a garnish and flavoring. They are widely used to flavor May wine. 

How does woodruff tea taste?

Woodruff tea has been described as having a fresh, grassy flavor; the aromatic leaves of the plant are slightly sweet and mellow. The fragrant tea is made from the plant’s dried leaves and flowers.

Can children drink woodruff tea?

No, Children should not ingest woodruff because the safety of the plant’s use for infants and children has not yet been established.

A Word From Verywell

Woodruff contains coumarin, the compound that gives the plant its sweet scent. It’s important to note that very high doses of coumarin can potentially be toxic. But the herb has a long history of safe use and there have been no reports of serious side effects as a result of drinking woodruff whole herb tea. Because much of the research on the safety of long-term use of woodruff is conflicting, it’s vital to consult with a professional health care provider before ingesting woodruff in any form. 

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Article Sources

  1. Kahkeshani N, Farahanikia B, Mahdaviani P, et al. Antioxidant and burn healing potential of Galium odoratum extracts. Res Pharm Sci. 2013;8(3):197–203. 

  2. Phytology.org. Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum. Updated 2014.


  3. Michel Kenne Tchimene, Christopher O. Okunji, ... Victor Kuete. Coumarins and Related Compounds from the Medicinal Plant Research in AfricaScience Direct.com. 2013.

  4.  Abraham K, Wöhrlin F, Lindtner O, Heinemeyer G, Lampen A. Toxicology and risk assessment of coumarin: focus on human data. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2010;54(2):228-39. DOI:10.1002/mnfr.200900281