Have you ever tasted May Punch, also known as Maibowle (pronounce ‘my-bow-lah) in German? And have you wondered what it is with this green colored beverages, candies, and ice-cream that taste so indescribably. Simply because there is no other flavor that tastes like Sweet Woodruff (gallium odoratum) – Germans call it Waldmeister (pronounce ‘vult-my-stah)?
First of all, Sweet Woodruff is a plant – and for the legendary punch it is best used before it grows its white blossoms, which means before mid-May. Which is also why May Punch is popular only in such a small time window.
I remember these fingered leaves growing in shadowy, mixed beech and oak forests in Germany, and how exhilarated we felt when we found any before it had blossomed. I haven’t seen it around here in Western Washington – I guess it’s the different soil, kinds of trees, and the humidity that prevent its wild growth.
Of course, as the linguist I am, the term “Waldmeister” made me curious – why would anybody call a plant “Master of the woods”? Because, actually, it has so many wonderful usages. In other languages this is reflected by similar names that indicate its importance. Another explanation is that it derives from the Latin word “muscus”, meaning musk – a hint to its scent – or from the German word Miere (another species of plants) – which explains the name “Waldmeier” without the “st” in the chart I found for this article. I don’t think that there really was a Master Walther, as some might have it, who gave the plant its name. Have you ever heard of a medieval scholar of that name?!
Anyhow, the intriguing flavour and scent of Sweet Woodruff originates from the agent coumarin which grows more intense when the plant is dried. Therefore, in its dried state, some people might use it as a moth deterrent or for potpourris. In homeopathic medicinal use it is vasodilative, anti-inflammatory, and antispasmodic. As to food and beverage items – I’m afraid we are dealing with an artificial flavour these days, unless we create our own homebrews. The appetizing formula for Sweet Woodruff is C??H?O?. No wonder the flavor is so hard to describe, right?
Still, a lot of Germans are much in love with Sweet Woodruff – and you can be sure you will find one or the other item in your German store around the corner. You can pour the syrup into white wine or bubbly to create May Punch. Dash some into a Hefeweizen (make sure you have a large glass!!!), and you get the famous Berliner Weisse (no idea why it’s called “white” when it, of course, turns green!). There is Goetterspeise (pronounce ‘guh-tah-shpy-sah, meaning food of the Gods), which is a kind of jello. You will find hard and soft candies with Sweet Woodruff flavour. One of my favorite popsicles during my childhood was a woodruff creamsicle, called Gruenofant (no, it was not shaped like an elephant – and the connection between Sweet Woodruff and elephants mystifies me to this day). And there is Brause (pronounce ‘browse-zah, meaning sherbet powder), a popular item not just amongst kids – it’s eaten as a fizzy powder or made into a fizzy drink.
As a German-American, I had to research, of course, why we are so crazy for May Punch, Maibowle. And I think I found the real reason after all. It’s not just the time of year the plant is harvested for medicinal purposes. It’s actually kind of a religious reason – and I preserve a strong suspicion it was hatched in the Medieval Ages. Allegedly you could use Sweet Woodruff against demons and … witches. Which is where we come full circle. Remember my column and book “Home from Home” and its topic of “May Day”?
Right, the Eve of May 1, as folklore has it, the witches are dancing on the Brocken mountain, they are wreaking havoc, while riding through the air. I just wonder whether people thought there were witches after having imbibed enough of May Punch – or whether a good bowl of the flavourful stuff enabled you to ignore the fear of them. Whichever it is, you ought to give it a try sometime. Prost!