While my companions all looked up, I gazed to the ground. They were rewarded with discoveries of birds and my prize was a flotilla of flowers.

During Mass Audubon’s annual Bird-a-thon — a daylong bird-finding bonanza and fundraiser — my team scoured the Island to find the most avian species in 24 hours. At Christiantown Woods Preserve in West Tisbury, while most of the team was scouting for scarlet tanagers and warblers, I was wondering at the woodruff.  

Sweet woodruff, a perennial groundcover, was in bloom. Both its flowers and leaves are lovely: white blossoms emerge from a whorl of lanky leaves. And with its spreading habit, it carpeted the ground.  

While not a native plant, sweet woodruff has naturalized itself at Christiantown. At the preserve, there is a chapel and burial grounds for the Christian Wampanoags who lived and prayed there. This species was likely planted when the church was active; sweet woodruff has a history of religious symbolism and pagan mythology.  

Sometimes called Our Lady’s bedstraw, it was sacred to the Virgin Mary, who allegedly used sprigs of it to sweeten the bedding of her famous infant. Later it was employed in church services. This might have been because of its holy history, though some suggest that its fragrance also served to suppress the body odor of the congregants. Called a strewing herb, the custom of spreading it on the ground was practiced at home and elsewhere to repress unpleasant odors.  

Outside of its divinity, it is sweet woodruff’s smell and flavor that endears it to many cultures. Hailing from Europe and North Africa, it serves as the centerpiece of a May seasonal celebration.     

Sweet woodruff is described as exuding the fragrance of mowed hay, honey and vanilla. It was the key ingredient to flavor maitran, a German wine or aperitif consumed to honor the season and specifically consumed on May Day. Other names for this drink are maibowle and waldmeisterbowle, the latter of which translates to master of the woods and is a paean to fertility and the forest spirits.    

While sweet woodruff is still consumed in parts of Europe, used to flavor drinks, jams and jellies, syrup, ice cream and tea, modern warnings include a caution because it contains coumarin, which has toxic characteristics. Pregnant and lactating people are particularly warned against using it.

Many aliases are used for this plant — known scientifically as gallium odoratum — including the aforementioned master of the woods, wild baby’s breath and sweet scented bedstraw. The word bedstraw refers to the plant’s use in bedding and linens, especially to stuff pillows and mattresses.  Besides the scent, this plant is believed to repel moths, flies and other insects, including lice and bedbugs. And it is not a favorite of deer or rabbits, so is garden and yard-safe.  

Dried leaves and flowers can be added to perfumes, potpourri, kissing balls, wreathes and bouquests of dried flowers. The scent increases as the plant wilts and remains after drying. The aroma can last for years.   

The other warning is that this non-native plant can spread, though it seemed to remain relatively contained at Christiantown even after so many years of growth. Though potentially an invasive species, it seems to have brought nothing but good: multiple pleasant uses, enticing scent and no habitat destruction.   

It has, like me, remained grounded in location and habit, and is a reminder of holy history and herbalism. American broadcaster Judy Woodruff may have only shared a name with this plant but her affirmation and appellation is especially appropriate. Though I was just looking for birds, she knew that “you can find inspiration when you’re not even looking for it.” 

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.