Stuck on Galium aparine: An ode to cleavers

When it comes to native plants, there are always people who will profess a love for those species that are gorgeous wildflowers, towering conifers or shrubs that produce luscious edible berries.20150508Galium_aparine

But I’ve always had a fondness for native plants that even most plant lovers tend to overlook. Galium aparine is one; you might know it better as cleavers.

There are so many things I love about cleavers. I love the plethora of common names: goosegrass, catchweed, stickyweed, sticky willy, velcro weed and grip grass. Goosegrass comes from the fact that geese (and other fowl) love to eat the plant. All the other epithets derive from cleavers’ clingy habit.

It is part of the Rubiaceae family, which also includes the plants that give us coffee, quinine, gardenias and more. The genus Galium has about 600 species of plants. Galium aparine is considered native to Europe, North America, North Africa and Asia.

In fact, there are debates among botanists about whether the plants that you see in North America are the Galium aparine of European origin or of North American origin. The end point seems to be that some may be Euro-intros, but that Galium aparine is a native. If you’re interested in the finer points of those debates, get thee to Google.

Galium aparine an annual plant, which means that it springs up from seed, grows to a mature plant, flowers, is pollinated, sets seed and dies. Next year, those seeds repeat the cycle.

As plants go, it’s one you might not notice except for the fact that the whole plant (which can grow to a straggly three metres in length) is covered in tiny hooked hairs that cling to just about anything. They cling to other plants, tree trunks, fence posts and more as they climb towards light. They cling to camera straps and shirt sleeves when you’re trying to photograph them.

The hooked hairs are even hinted at in the plant’s scientific name: Galium comes from the Greek word for milk (gala); aparine is derived from the Greek verb harpazo meaning “to seize”. By passing a bunch of cleavers through a pail of milk, the hooked hairs picked up bits of hay and any other debris that might have fallen in during milking.

The flowers are not especially showy. But they are attractive to insects, including pollinators such as beetles, flies, ants, wasps, bees, moths and butterflies. Not that Galium aparine needs help – it can self-pollinate quite nicely, thank you.

The fruits – which also have hooked hairs – cling to skin, feathers, fur and clothing, which is rather an ingenious way for a stationary plant to distribute its seeds.Flowers_February_2008-4

Humans have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Galium aparine.

The agriculture industry is not fond of cleavers. The plants are seen as a scourge to those who produce cereal crops such as oats, wheat, canola and the like – not only because of the competition for resources but because the cleavers seeds can be so hard to separate out from crop seeds. The plants also tend to entangle harvesting equipment.

On the other hand, humans have used Galium aparine in a multitude of ways over the centuries. It has been used as mattress stuffing (another common name is “bedstraw”), its seeds have been roasted and used as a coffee substitute, its roots used to make dye. Early European herbalists used it to treat everything from earaches to goiters to scurvy.

Even First Nations in the Pacific Northwest used Galium aparine in various ways: the Cowichan used it to removed tree pitch from sticky hands, while women of the Cowlitz tribe bathed with cleavers as it was thought to make them successful in love. The Nitinaht considered Galium aparine good for the hair, making it grow long.

Today, in the foraging movement, there are those folks who eat cleavers. And while I’ve not sampled it, I did find a note on Kew Garden’s page about cleavers that notes: “The whole plant is edible, though not particularly tasty.”

If you are seeking to sample it yourself, there are recipes on the web. (Just a reminder though: do not forage in any protected areas i.e. any parks. These are very special places where native plants are the foundation of a functioning ecosystem. Respect the plants; respect the park.)

Scientists are starting to look at Galium aparine for its possible medicinal values. One recent phytochemical study found that there were some moderate antibacterial properties, but noted that further research is required.

For such an unassuming native plant, it seems that there is still much to learn about Galium aparine.