Spoonfuls of Germany

May’s sweetest herb


Sweet woodruff ice-cream

If there is one thing that has always been associated with junk food in Germany, it’s sweet woodruff (Waldmeister). There is sweet woodruff-flavored Jell-O, hard candy, soda, and Italian ice, all of them a neon-green color.

Jell-O is also called Götterspeise in German, „Food for the gods.“ And that’s what it felt to me as a kid: heavenly yet rather unreachable. Because nothing with sweet woodruff would cross our doorstep. My mother as a child on a school trip once got very sick from sweet woodruff soda, and the pure mention of it made her stomach turn decades later. Meanwhile I snapped up every opportunity to suck on tricolored Dolomiti, an Italian ice with sweet woodruff, raspberry and lemon flavor in the shape of the Dolomites mountain peaks in northern Italy. The ice was taken off the market in 1987, and the relaunch with strawberry and gooseberry seven years later was a flop. Then, last year, the manufacturer, Langnese, brought back the old Dolomiti, touting its “original sweet woodruff flavor”.

Until I saw recipes with sweet woodruff, the herb that is, appearing in German magazines and on food websites in recent years, I had completely forgotten about it. Using the real thing is part of the trend in Germany to bring back grandma’s forgotten recipes and ingredients. Waldmeisterbowle, the sparkling white wine punch with sweet woodruff, had never completely fallen out of fashion. It is also known as Maibowle because May is the month when sweet woodruff is available. Yet even for the punch, recipes would often call for the very artificial-looking green syrup.

I realized I had never tasted sweet woodruff in anything but those junk foods. So last spring, I bought three seedlings from a mail-order nursery and planted them underneath a tree. Sweet woodruff, as its German name Waldmeister (literally “forest master”) indicates, naturally grows in shade in the woods.

Sweet woodruff plant

To my great delight, sweet woodruff likes it here. It has grown into a thick little patch. Sweet woodruff must be harvested before the bloom so when I saw tiny flower heads forming this week, I knew it was time for my Waldmeister cooking session.

With caution though, because while sweet woodruff has anti-inflammatory, diuretic and gently sedating properties in small amounts, too much can cause headaches, blackouts, and liver damage. Sweet woodruff contains coumarin, a natural plant substance that is also contained in Cassia cinnamon, and not to be confused with the anti-coagulant, or blood thinning coumadin.

The amounts given in sweet woodruff recipes vary greatly, from only a few sprigs to a couple of handfuls. Being a lifelong migraine sufferer made me especially wary, therefore I used the smallest amounts.

It is the coumarin that gives sweet woodruff its typical scent of freshly cut hay. That scent only develops in the bruised, wilted and dried herb. I had cut the woodruff in the morning, and when I walked past the plants in the evening I could still smell the sweet woodruff scent lingering in the air.

The stems are not used because they contain a milky bitter substance. Punch recipes usually tell you to bundle the stems and place them upside down, so the cut ends are not leaking into the wine. I find it more practical to strip the leaves off the stems right after cutting and then strain the liquid.

To extend the ephemeral sweet woodruff season, in addition to ice-cream and punch, I made a batch of syrup. It is used in German recipes to flavor (in small amounts, a tablespoon or two is usually sufficient) drinks, desserts and cakes.

Everything I made has a subtle, pleasant sweet woodruff flavor. Yet nothing came out the slightest bit green.

Sweet Woodruff Ice-Cream (Waldmeister-Eiscreme)

20 small or 10 large stems (1/3 ounce/10 g) freshly cut sweet woodruff

3 large eggs

1 cup (200 g) sugar

2 cups (480 ml) milk (I use 2%)

2 cups (480 ml) heavy cream

1. Wash and dry the sweet woodruff. Remove the leaves from the stems and spread them on a large plate. Let dry and wilt for at least 8 hours, or overnight.

2. Place the milk in a saucepan and add the leaves. Slowly heat it until it starts to barely simmer. Cover and let steep for 1 hour.

3. Strain the milk through a fine sieve or through several layers of cheesecloth into a double boiler or into a metal bowl placed over a pot with simmering water. Discard the leaves. Add the eggs and the sugar and beat until smooth. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens and coats a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool. Stir in the heavy cream. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid and chill overnight.

4. The next day prepare the ice-cream according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

 Makes 8 servings

sog woodruff drink

Sweet Woodruff White Wine Punch (Waldmeisterbowle)

20 small or 10 large stems (1/3 ounce/10 g) freshly cut sweet woodruff

1 bottle chilled white wine

1 bottle chilled champagne or sparkling wine

Fresh mint leaves for garnish (optional)

1. Wash and dry the sweet woodruff. Remove the leaves from the stems and spread them on a large plate. Let dry and wilt for at least 8 hours, or overnight.

2. Place the leaves and the white wine in a punch bowl or a large glass bowl. Stir and let sit for about 20 minutes. Make sure to keep track of the time, so the flavor does not get too intense.

3. Strain through a fine sieve. Add the champagne and serve immediately.

Makes 12 to 16 servings


14 thoughts on “May’s sweetest herb

  1. Wonderful post!! I tried growing woodruff from seed here in Languedoc, without any success. Finally a friend from Germany brought me a few plants, and the are now flourishing in my garden. However they are usually in flower by the beginning of May, so no Maibowle for me :(, I think I’ll follow your tip and make syrup next year! I’ve bookmarked your page!!

    • Thanks. Sounds like sweet woodruff likes it in Languedoc. – I just admired your lovely garden and its beautiful stone wall on your blog. I have borage in my garden too, usually next to cucurbitae, which is great to for pollination but the seedlings are still tiny. Everything is much later here.

  2. Nadia, this is fascinating. Sweet woodruff is a common garden plant here, but I don’t know of anyone who uses it as food. Too bad my plants are already flowering. I will dig some up for my new garden.

    • Woodruff is one of the nicest and most pleasant aroma one can imagine. I am serious. If you don’t know it, you miss one of the most beautiful creations of mother nature in terms of scent, aroma, flavour. a tiny bit it does remind me of cherries, less cinamon, a bit more vanilla. try it. I can’t descibe it better. it is a fantastic flavour. Why isn’t it used more in any products? I assume it has to do with the slight medical effects when consuming it in large quantities, which can be negative. I personally have never experienced any medical effects from it.

  3. The taste of early summer!

  4. Do you make it before it blooms? Or during the bloom, like elderberry?

  5. Pingback: In a vase on Monday: tulips and sweet woodruff – enclos*ure

  6. Pingback: German Waldmeister Treats for May Day | Eating The World

  7. Fab! I used t love anything Waldmeister – and people in England (I moved here in 1998) don’t really know if at all. To my delight I came across some in a garden centre last year and planted it. I was just looking up recipes and stumbled upon your blog – gladness I did! Wish I’d done so sooner though as I just missed it blossoming – too late now to harvest…

  8. Hello Nadia, I planted sweet woodruff last year and would like to harvest the leaves to use throughout the year. Can I freeze the leaves?

    • Rita, I have never heard of woodruff leaves being frozen and I doubt that would yield good results. The delicate scent and flavor comes from the fresh leaves, harvested before the bloom (a very short harvest window) being slightly wilted and crushed. Freezing the leaves I am afraid would result in an unappealing mush and the scent and flavor would be lost. To enjoy sweet woodruff throughout the year, the usual method is to turn it into syrup. If you send me an email to spoonfulsofgermany@gmail.com I will gladly share my syrup recipe with you.

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