Friday, August 19, 2011

Hunting Galium, Waldmeister, Woodruff

I asked Kyle Hancock, professor of music at Georgia Southern University, whether he could tell me anything about Johann (II) Strauss's operetta, Waldmeister. Actually, the libretto was written by Gustav Davis. Strauss composed the music. Kyle could not, having never performed or studied it. Perhaps with the libretto in hand I could study it myself. So he gave me the phone number of Glendower Jones, a very knowledgeable music purveyor he knows, but Mr. Jones had never seen the libretto during his many years of purveying. Even if I had it, I would barely know what to do with it, since I struggle with German. I know that's right because I finally found a copy of the Waldmeister libretto online, and reading it was too laborious. I should have paid a little attention in college during German 101.

My search was motivated by the desire to learn as much as I could about the herb, Galium (pronounced GAL-ee-um) and particularly the species odoratum (odor-AY-tum). It's a short, shade-loving perennial that is native to forests in Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.  Galium refers to "milk" and odoratum means "fragrant". Sometimes the botanical name Asperula (pronounced as-PAIR-uh-luh, meaning "rough") is used. Galium is also known as Waldmeister (Woodmaster), Sweet Woodruff, Sweet-scented Bedstraw, Our Lady's Bedstraw, Our Lady's Lace, Curd-Wort and Quinsy-Wort. Of course, I wanted to know why the plant was given all those names. But, to begin, I thought that by studying the libretto, I should better understand how the herb took root in German culture. The best I could find was a synopsis of Waldmeister at Boosey and Hawkes. In short, it's a little longer than this:

A happy hunting party of woodsmen, a beautiful opera singer and her boyfriend are caught in the forest during a rain storm. They find shelter in a millhouse and change their clothes. Chief forester Tymoleon surprises them, intending to teach them manners. But the boyfriend learns that Tymoleon has fallen in love with fair Freda, the daughter of the very person that tipped him off to the woodsmen, et alia in the millhouse. Everyone knows somehow that Tymoleon is a womanizer, and is not right for Freda. They plot to teach him a lesson. After a crazy engagement ceremony, celebrated with a wild lime-blossom tea, everything goes topsy-turvy. Nobody ends up with the one they came with, and "the mystery of the ‘black woodruff’ is unexpectedly disclosed."

Sounds like a typical comic opera. It titillated audiences in the 1890s as the prospect does now. But, of course, that raised more questions for me than it answered. What was in the lime-blossom tea? What was the mystery of the black woodruff? Is there a play on words with "woodmaster" and "woodruff?" Is the Waldmeister a ruffian? Is the Waldmeister Tymoleon, the herb, something or someone else? Here again, if I could read German without a dictionary, I might figure it out.

I've read that Johannes Brahms, a friend of Strauss, admired the operetta. But, alas, his endorsement wasn't enough. Waldmeister is rarely performed nowadays. The Waldmeister Overture is about all you'll hear.

I did find a couple of recordings of Die ganze Nacht durchschwärmt.

Laying aside my search for meaning in the operetta, I turned to "Woodruff." Recalling that I once knew a man named Woodruff, I decided to ferret-out its origin, and soon learned that the surname, Woodruff, is derived from "wood-reeve", the keeper of a forest and its denizens. AHA! So this says something about the plant, the operetta, and might hold a key to both.

On to the Bedstraw appellation. I don't know whether the name, Sweetscented Bedstraw, preceded Our Lady's Bedstraw, or if it was the other way around. At any rate, Galium was certainly used as bedstraw because of its fragrance. Of course, the pleasant fragrance was much needed in a house before the advent of modern conveniences and hygiene. I can barely imagine how badly homes must have smelled in medieval times when animals lived in or under the house, chamber pots were kept under the bed, floors might have been carpeted with rushes and matted with years of grime, food scraps, excrement and spit.

Galium was called Our Lady's Bedstraw because of a common practice among many Christian communities to associate some places, things and their attributes to Christian themes. It was a teaching aid to surround themselves, young and old, with reminders of their faith. Legend had it that the Blessed Virgin Mary used the plant as bedding for herself and The Christ Child on Christmas Night. I suppose Galium was called Our Lady's Lace because of the many small white flowers.

As I mentioned before, Galium refers to "milk", and I learned that one of the species, because of some chemical property, was used to curdle milk in the process of cheese-making. Thus it was sometimes called Curd-Wort.

With the possible exception of Curd-wort, Quinsy-Wort may be the least poetic of its names. Quinsy is a disease of the throat that can afflict teens and young adults. It resembles tonsillitis, but has much more serious consequences...sometimes fatal. Thankfully, it is rare. But Galium was once used to treat it.

Arguably, the most popular use for Galium odoratum is as an essential ingredient in Maywine (Mai Wein). Maywine is available commercially. The basic recipe involves soaking the crushed herb and fruit in white Rhine table wine. I don't know how long it takes, and I've never tasted it. But I understand that the flavor is one of new-mown hay. I like the smell of new-mown hay, but I don't know that I'd want to drink it. The flavor is said to be bitter. It must be an acquired taste. In Germany, woodruff is also added to smoking tobacco, beer, and to foods from meats to desserts.

It surprised me to learn that an active property in Galium (the one that imparts aroma and taste) is coumarin. Coumarin is also found in other plants, and in some natural flavoring agents. By a process involving fermentation, coumarin can be rendered very toxic and used as an effective rat poison. By the way, the same is used as an anti-coagulant for the treatment of coronary diseases. Have you ever walked through a field of new-mown hay and enjoyed the fragrance? If the dust didn't set you to sneezing, it was the coumarin you smelled.

Given the ingenuity of Davis and Strauss, I expect that there are all kinds of allusions to the names and properties of Galium in their Waldmeister operetta. In fact, their composition might explain everything, but I don't know because I didn't pay attention in German 101!

Galium odoratum grows 12 inches to 20 inches tall. Dark green leaves are simple, lance-shaped, smooth, and arranged in whorls around the stem. Small white flowers are borne above it in late spring or early summer. It prefers slightly moist soil that is high in organic matter with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.5. It's hardy in USDA climate zones 4 through 8.

There are many good reasons to include it in your garden. Galium tends to colonize an area (perhaps that's where the name, Woodmaster, comes from), so it makes a fine ground cover in shade where many other plants won't grow. Collectors of medicinal plants will want it represented in their landscapes. It's perfect for the shady spot in your herb or fragrance garden. Marian gardens and those with musical themes wouldn't be complete without it.

To prepare your shade garden for Galium, take a soil sample to your nearby Cooperative Extension Service for analysis. Adjust the pH and nutrient levels according to instructions. Don't bother tilling unless the soil is compacted, which is unlikely with humusy soils. If tilling is required, cultivate to a depth of 12 inches. Add peat and compost if necessary. Water the young plants in their pots, remove from them from the pots, and space them 12 inches to 18 inches apart. Insert them into the soil with the top of the root ball at the same level as the native soil. Water again. Apply mulch, but not more than 3 inches deep.

There is something restful and peaceful about a shaded garden, as James Whitcomb Riley expressed so well.

Out at Woodruff Place--afar
From the city's glare and jar,
With the leafy trees, instead
Of the awnings, overhead;
With the shadows cool and sweet,
For the fever of the street;
With the silence, like a prayer,
Breathing round us everywhere.

Gracious anchorage, at last,
From the billows of the vast
Tide of life that comes and goes,
Whence and where nobody knows--
Moving, like a skeptic's thought,
Out of nowhere into naught.
Touch and tame us with thy grace,
Placid calm of Woodruff Place!

Weave a wreath of beechen leaves
For the brow that throbs and grieves
O'er the ledger, bloody-lined,
'Neath the sun-struck window-blind!
Send the breath of woodland bloom
Through the sick man's prison room,
Till his old farm-home shall swim
Sweet in mind to hearten him!

Out at Woodruff Place the Muse
Dips her sandal in the dews,
Sacredly as night and dawn
Baptize lilied grove and lawn:
Woody path, or paven way--
She doth haunt them night and day,--
Sun or moonlight through the trees,
To her eyes, are melodies.

Swinging lanterns, twinkling clear
Through night-scenes, are songs to her--
Tinted lilts and choiring hues,
Blent with children's glad halloos;
Then belated lays that fade
Into midnight's serenade--
Vine-like words and zithern-strings
Twined through ali her slumberings.

Blessed be each hearthstone set
Neighboring the violet!
Blessed every rooftree prayed
Over by the beech's shade!
Blessed doorway, opening where
We may look on Nature--there
Hand to hand and face to face--
Storied realm, or Woodruff Place.
-June At Woodruff
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