Cleavers, Sticky Willie or Goosegrass and some more of the Rubiaceae

Close up showing the hooked hairs along the stem and leaves which it uses to attach itself.
All pictures by Matt Summers

This week all about this fascinating plant known as Cleavers, Goosegrass or even; Sticky Willie! It can be annoying in gardens but there is one very good use I saw in a ‘permacultural run garden’ which used the plants rather as a disguise for the maturing fruits on Gooseberry, as well as other soft-fruit bushes.  Once the fruits were ripe and ready to pick the entire clinging plant would be ‘peeled’ back and most of the fruit  picked. Any leftovers were for the birds! Much friendlier than netting I thought and it is something I would like to experiment with this year!

This plant is in the Rubiaceae family which is number 104 in Stace. The Rubiaceae is a very large, mainly tropical family and is mostly woody in that climate, whilst in this part of the world they are mainly annual to perennial herbs.

It is called the Bedstraw family after two of the main genera; Galium and Cruciata. This family is not so difficult to recognise as it has small flowers, mostly white and rarely yellow and pink. The flowers have 4 to 5 petals fused into an (often very short) tube. Most species have apparently whorled leaves on 4 angled stems (square). In fact they are 2 opposite leaves and the other leaves making up the whorl are in fact leaf like stipules.

There are 14 species of Galium described in Stace with only 1 species introduced (Galium spurium or False Cleavers) and another (G. tricornutum or Corn Cleavers) is an archaeophyte.

The interesting and most useful species are Galium aparine (Cleavers), G. odoratum (Woodruff), G. verum (Lady’s bedstraw) and also Crosswort or Cruciata laevipes , Rubia tinctorium (Madder), R. peregrina (Wild Madder) and Asperula cynanchica or Squinancywort.

A lot of the information below comes from the Medicinal Flora by J. Barker.

Asperula cynanchica or Squinancywort.

  • roots yield a red dye.
  • Used in the past as a gentle cleanser or diuretic and laxative. Squinancy means quinsy.
  • the aerial parts were used as an astringent gargle for throat infections.
  • It was also claimed to be effective, as the next species certainly is (G. odoratum or Woodruff), in treating jaundice.

G. odoratum or Woodruff.

Ornamental use:

  • The ruff of leaves and the star-like white flowers are a most pleasurable sight as they spill around the base of a tree in open woodland or at the bottom of your garden.
  • This is a coumarin containing plant (as is Melilot  and Bastard Balm) which you can detect from the aroma of freshly mown hay that develops only on drying. The dried herb finds a use, then, in scenting and freshening linen, as a deterrent to moths and other insects; in Gerard’s day, garlands of ‘wodrove’ were hung in the house and strewn on the floor.
  • Country names like ‘Kiss-me-quick’ and ‘Sweethearts’ remind us that it is supposed to be a mild aphrodisiac; it is very much an association with freshness and innocence.
  • The flowers and the herb were (and still are in parts of France and Germany) made into infusions or cordial wines: such as May-cups, Vin de Mai, or Maitrank.
  • The dried leaves mixed with those of Peppermint  and Coltsfoot  can be smoked as an aid to giving up tobacco. The plant is little used medicinally but does not deserve to have become so neglected.

Action of the herb: Diuretic (said also to be litholytic = dissolving calculi). Stomachic. Mild sedative and antispasmodic. Cholagogue.

Medicinal Uses: Insomnia (especially in children). Tense and restless states, tension headaches. Biliary obstruction, with or without jaundice, it has been used as a poultice for liver enlargement from various causes. Venous stasis & thrombophlebitis. Dysmenorrhoea. Said to be helpful in renal colic. Pruritus vulvae (as a douche).

G. verum or Lady’s Bedstraw

  • Like Woodruff, the dried herbage was used as stuffing for mattresses which was a good place to combine the agreeable scent with insect deterrent properties.
  • The medieval imagination included the bedstraw in its recreation of the stable at Bethlehem.
  • In folklore, this has a long benign association with labour and childbirth. Galium is from the Greek for milk but this does not mean that it encourages the mother’s milk.

It refers to the plant’s ability to curdle milk and was added to rennet in the manufacture of cheeses.

There has been something of a revival in recent years with the production of ‘ Vegetarian Cheese’ which uses this plant both as a colouring and as a curdling agent instead of rennet from the stomach of unweaned calves.

  • The stolons, the base of the stem and the roots yield a red dye while a good yellow colour is obtained from the upper stem and leaves.
Hedge Bedstraw among the grass!

Hedge Bedstraw (G. mollugo) has similar properties. G. propinquum has been used in New Zealand to treat gonorrhoea.

Action of the herb:

Astringent, vulnerary (it’s haemostyptic). Antispasmodic and sedative. Diuretic.

Medicinal Uses:

  • Oedema (esp. of lymphatic or renal origin).
  • Cystitus.
  • Urinary retention.
  • Nervous states including associated symptoms, when mild. Like headache and palpitations.
  • Still used in France to counteract tendency to epileptic convulsions.
  • Applied externally to wounds and skin eruptions.
  • Inhalation of the powdered plant to stop nosebleeds.

 G. aparine or Cleavers

Known to the Greeks as the ‘philanthropis’, not because of its safe and beneficial medicinal effects but because it sticks rather affectionately to your clothes. The Welsh refer to the fruits as llou’r ffeirad, ‘priest’s lice’ which probably means no disrespect to the plant. More properly known as Cynghafen, it was considered by the Physicians of Myddfai as one of the most important of indiginous herbs.

In John Pughes’s translation of one text, Goosegrass (for it is eaten by them) as a sole remedy for all humoral imperfections and toxins receives a great deal of attention. The ‘powdered ‘seeds’ are also recommeded as a general prophylactic; certainly, the roasted fruits in the Celtic regions from Brittany to Ireland have been used as a coffee substitute.

Action and Medicinal Uses:

Internally:

  • Lymphadenitis (especially reduction of enlarged cervical lymph nodes).
  • Skin eruptions such as dry eczema and psoriasis.
  • Dysuria.
  • Slightly hypotensive and anti-inflammatory, it is effective in generalised oedema.
  • Cazin found that it improves the circulation in old people.

externally:

  • Burns and abrasions. The juice or a strong infusion is styptic and cooling: tradition holds it to be effective in reducing wens & carbuncles.
Flowering tips of Crosswort

Cruciata laevipes or Crosswort picture on right

  • This was considered specific for internal bleeding.
  • It is an astringent herb, a property John Pechey extends to include ruptures. He gives its older name Mug-weed and adds that “it also expectorates viscous humours” (from the Complete Herbal of Physical Plants, London, 1694).
  • It is said to be diuretic and chloretic but, so far as I know, this has not been put to the test. (pers. com. J. Barker)

Rubia tinctorium or Madder

  • The root of this plant was the source, since Egyptian time, of a red dye.

Patients should be warned that it will colour the urine and give the impression that it is bloodstained: it may also give a pink tinge to sweat and even to mucus. The plant has been incorporated into animal fodder and it has been shown that, in time, the dye is taken up by their bones.

R. peregrina or Wild Madder

  • A more limpid dye is obtained from the roots and gives a lovely rosy-pink rather than the brilliant red of the cultivated Madder.
  • It is also diuretic, but has a less vigorous and less certain medicinal action.

Action: Diuretic. Litholytic. Antispasmodic. Antiseptic. Choleretic (Leclerc classes it as a bitter tonic). Laxative. Emmenagogue.

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