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GARDEN FRESH : The Perennial Garland of Spring

June 03, 1993|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Start with a stem--dark green, square and skinny. On top, perch clusters of four-petaled white stars so tiny that dozens fit in a thimble. Elegantly spaced down the stem, set bursts of small leaves that might be green-petaled daisies. Sweetly scent the blossoms and flavor the petals and leaves with a mingling of grass, vanilla and cherry.

Sweet woodruff.

But woodruff's appeal is not by ones but by hundreds. As it grows, the stalks seem to float in place, so you see not a blur of leaves but a myriad of shiny green stars--and the flowers are a lacy dapple.

I'd read that perennial sweet woodruff makes a lovely ground cover in shady places. Twice I sent for a plant from the East and put it in shade, and twice the plant came to naught. (You can grow woodruff from seed, but seeds take months to germinate.) Three years ago in spring, I tried again; among other virtues, gardening teaches perseverance.

This time I set the woodruff at the foot of our slender filbert tree. Full sun all winter, then in mid-April, when the tree leafs out, morning shade and weakening sun in the afternoon. Leaves shed by the nut tree provide mulch through winter, and as they decompose, surround the woodruff with the fluffy, rich, dark, mysterious moist soil of the woods.

The first year, although healthy, the plant did nothing. Last year, it flowered nicely in May and June and spread its wings a little, but I could sense a defensive "Who, me? Do what?" air about it.

Heaven knows what went on beneath the filbert leaves last winter. I didn't look closely in spring until the woodruff bloomed in April, and then I just stared. The lacy garland was three feet wide, flung six feet around the tree. Three years. One plant.

It always annoys me when gardening books talk about a plant that prospers as a potential nuisance. "Can become a pest," they grumble. True, mint's like that. But my sweet woodruff can self-sow and root its merry way a fair distance before I'll stop it.

To grow woodruff well, plant in spring or autumn. If you're fresh out of nut trees, choose a spot that suits your climate--the hotter the climate, the less sun. Woodruff is not just charming under trees but also spilling over shady rocks or the edge of a border. Where you'll ultimately want the woodruff to grow, dig in two inches of peat moss or leaf mold or both and a veil of bone meal (and an inch of sand, if your soil is clay). Keep the roots moist, pull any weeds and be patient. By the way, woodruff is hardy to 30 degrees below zero.

Think how few beautiful and scented and tasty plants grow in shade!

As with nearly all flowers and leaves, drying intensifies woodruff's flavor. Harvest sprigs when in flower and hang in bunches upside down in a cool, dark, dry, airy place. Dried woodruff leaves are traditionally described as having the sweetness and fresh flavor of new-mown hay.

This taste comes through cleanly in spirits. It's fascinating how, across the centuries and miles, people of different cultures gathering an herb agree on its highest and best use. Sweet woodruff has always been for drinks--for flavoring cordials and wines.

From medieval times, mid-spring has been sweet woodruff's season, because it generally flowers from April through June. In Germany, sprigs of sweet woodruff are steeped for a day or more in white wine--dry or lightly sweetened--then drunk with ceremony on May Day and through the month. The recipe that follows is ideal for traditional June gatherings, from bridal showers to rehearsal dinners to nuptial suppers.

For the rest of the menu, let everything be delicate and shimmer and glow: cool, rosy poached salmon, a rainbow of steamed baby vegetables (red potatoes, green beans, carrots, asparagus tips, beets and sugar snap peas dressed with hazelnut oil and fresh orange juice), finishing with baskets of crisp meringue heaped with raspberries and softly whipped cream. Strew the table with golden and crimson cherries.

Just in case you fall in love with woodruff, a caution. Nibbling a sprig or two in a glass of wine on occasion is innocuous--has been for hundreds of years. But just as eating large quantities of spinach or raw mushrooms is inadvisable, so it is with sweet woodruff. Moderation in all things.

Sources : Ask a nursery or order by mail from Wayside Gardens, 1 Garden Lane, Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001.

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In this glorious cup, a drop of vanilla enhances the elusive flavor of the flowers and leaves. Serve in eight-ounce white wine glasses--faceted, if possible. The hues--honey-colored wine, white blossoms, green blades of leaves and bright red strawberry--are the more vibrant through the prisms. If sweet woodruff isn't yet in your garden, float petals of un-sprayed fragrant white baby roses and tuck a rose leaf in the glass with the strawberry. You may want to keep the vanilla, but don't crush the petals.

SWEET WOODRUFF CUP 16 (6-inch) sprigs sweet woodruff in bloom 8 drops pure vanilla extract 1 (750-milliliter) bottle late-harvest Gewurztraminer, cool but not cold (any delicately sweet white wine may be used; the more golden, the better) 8 (1-inch) ripe strawberries, un-hulled

Keep woodruff sprigs in water in cool place until needed, then prepare cups just before serving.

Reserve 8 prettiest sprigs. Drop leaves and flowers from remaining sprigs into wine glasses. Add 1 drop vanilla to each glass. With tip of teaspoon, crush flowers and leaves to release essence, about 5 or 6 strokes (do not mash). Divide wine among glasses, about 3 ounces each. Stir. Drop in 1 strawberry, tuck in 1 sprig of woodruff. Makes 8 servings.

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