St Barnaby

Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright
Light all day and light all night.

The rhyme for this day shows that Barnaby is associated with the summer solstice. In the pre-Gregorian calendar, this holiday fell 11 days later and thus coincided with the solstice.

St Barnabas was invoked as a peacemaker. On his day, it was customary to deck churches and houses with Barnaby garlands of roses and sweet woodruff. Sometimes the garlands also included the pink ragged robin.

When Barnabas smiles both night and day
Poor Ragged Robin blooms in the hay
At St Barnabas, the scythe in the meadow.

St Barnaby also had a thistle named after him: St Barnabas’ Thistle (centaurea solstialis), the second name of which confirms his association with the solstice. This plant is also known as the Yellow Starthistle: it has a radiant yellow flower and yellow spikes.

In Denmark, this was the end of the contract year and masters and servants were free to renegotiate their contracts or part ways. It was also called The Devil’s Birthday

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc, Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days, Oxford University Press, 2000
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

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Flower of May: Sweet Woodruff

Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book:

Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) is one of my favorite plants. It is a low-lying ground cover with narrow dark-green leaves that grow in whorls around a central stem. It blooms around the first of May: small white flowers with four petals. Woodruff grows best in shade; mine is happy in a part of my garden which is rather moist. In Germany, it is called Waldmeister (master of the forest).

Woodruff does not have a strong fragrance until picked. But once dried, it develops a wonderful sweet aroma, a mixture of hay and vanilla. The scent comes from coumarin, a fragrant chemical also found in melilot and tonka beans. Coumarin is also an anti-coagulant and is used in blood-thinning medication.

Because of the presence of coumarin, the FDA only permits the use of sweet woodruff in alcoholic beverages (does that make sense?). Apparently large quantities have been known to cause vomiting and dizziness. It is probably best not to consume woodruff if pregnant or taking anti-coagulants.

Folk remedies call for the application of woodruff to fresh wounds; Rose speculates this would have kept the blood from clotting and prevent infection. Sweet woodruff was also made into a medicinal tea which soothed the stomach. It was recommended for heart and liver problems. The dried herb is wonderful for scenting potpourris, can be stuffed into sachets and tucked between linens to scent them. It is used to flavor May wine but it also has a reputation for provoking lechery, which may be another reason for its association with May Day.

Woodruff can be grown easily from starts. Mine came from my mentor and friend Helen Farias. Just dig up a little clump, roots and all. Plant it where it will get shade and its roots will stay moist. The plant spreads rapidly but is not invasive.

During my experiments with capturing the scent of plants, I was most successful with sweet woodruff. I let it sit in jojoba oil for about a week and now the oil is delicately flavored with that dry hay/tobacco/vanilla scent that I associate with lying in the grass at midsummer.

Image Credits:

The illustration comes from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany. The photo was released into the public domain by the photographer. I found it at Wikipedia.

First published April 19, 2010

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May Wine

Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book

May Wine is served on May Day. In Germany, May Wine is the quintessential summer drink. It is usually flavored with Sweet Woodruff (Waldmeister or Maikraut), perhaps because it improves the taste of thin, new wine. May wine is also the name for any wine punch flavored with herbs, fruits, berries and occasionally flowers.

To make May wine, pick sweet woodruff that does not have open blossoms several days before you want to serve the wine. Tie the stems with cotton thread and hang until dry so the sweet vanilla scent of the herb emerges. Then immerse the dried herb in a bottle of wine, usually Rhine wine, although Adelma Grenier Simmons uses champagne or a mixture of half Rhine wine and half champagne.

Some recipes advise you to leave the woodruff in the wine for days, even weeks. Others suggest removing it after ten or fifteen minutes, probably because woodruff contains coumarin, an anticoagulant and may cause headaches. However, it is probably not dangerous, unless you are pregnant or taking anticoagulants.

Michael Moore, writing about Northwest medicinal plants, suggests using vanilla leaf, another herb containing coumarin, to create a substitute for Polish sweet vodka, by putting a handful of the dried leaves in a fifth of vodka and steeping it for at least a month. He says it gives a nice green tint to the vodka, as well as a sweet flavor. Anyone want to try this with woodruff?

And Adelma Grenier Simmons says that a German friend of hers steeps woodruff in brandy year round, then adds the flavored brandy to the May wine. I have to say a little bit of woodruff goes a long way, and I probably wouldn’t leave it steeping in the brandy for much more than a week. Woodruff can also be used in the same way to flavor milk or apple juice if you prefer a non-alcoholic May drink.

The traditional Mai Bowle also has strawberries in it. Simmons garnishes her May bowl with fresh woodruff, Johnny jump-ups and violets. In Germany, the Mai Bowle is served every day during the month of May.

You can find more May Day food ideas, including a special minestrone and frittata served for May Day in Italy and a yogurt dish served for Hidrellez (the Persian celebration of May 1) in my May Day e-book.

References:

Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972

Simmons, Adelma Grenier, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, Plume (Penguin) 1990

First published April 19, 2010

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Sweet Woodruff

There are many plants and flowers associated with May Day: lilies of the valley (especially in France), hawthorn (especially in England), lilacs (especially in Ireland). All three bloom on or shortly after May Day but my favorite is another plant that flowers just in time for May Day: sweet woodruff.

Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) is a low-lying ground cover with narrow dark-green leaves that grow in whorls around a central stem. It blooms around the first of May: small white flowers with four petals. Woodruff grows best in shade; mine is growing under a tree where nothing else grows. In Germany, it is called Waldmeister (master of the forest).

Woodruff does not have a strong fragrance until picked. But once dried, it develops a wonderful sweet aroma, a mixture of hay and vanilla. The scent comes from coumarin, a fragrant chemical also found in melilot and tonka beans. Coumarin is also an anti-coagulant and is used in blood-thinning medication.

Because of the presence of coumarin, the FDA only permits the use of sweet woodruff in alcoholic beverages (does that make sense?). Apparently large quantities have been known to cause vomiting and dizziness. It is probably best not to consume woodruff if pregnant or taking anti-coagulants.

Folk remedies call for the application of woodruff to fresh wounds; Jeanne Rose speculates this would have kept the blood from clotting and prevent infection. Sweet woodruff was also made into medicinal tea and used for soothing the stomach. It was recommended for heart and liver problems.

The dried herb is wonderful for scenting potpourris, can be stuffed into sachets and tucked between linens to scent them.

It is used to flavor May wine. Most recipes suggest suspending a piece of dried woodruff in white wine for just long enough to imbue the wine with its flavor–an hour or so. It also has a reputation for provoking lechery, which may be another reason for its association with May Day.

Woodruff can be grown easily from starts. Mine came from my friend Helen Farias. Just dig up a little clump, roots and all. Plant it where it will get shade. The plant spreads rapidly but is not invasive.

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