Bedstraw grows rapidly in the spring and has long, weak stems and leaves that cling to everything like Velcro. Bedstraw climbs haphazardly over all of the surrounding plants, creating a sticky tangle of vines. Both the leaves and the stems have fine hairs tipped with tiny hooks. Because of its rapid growth, it can shade out smaller plants in a short time. When bedstraw grows in the sun, the prickly hairs are more robust than on shaded plants and can be more irritating to those pulling it out. The irritation is similar to being sandpapered. If you are sensitive to this scratchy plant, wear long sleeves and gloves when removing it.
For many gardeners, this spring has brought an invader that seems supercharged and has popped up in many garden beds and areas that are not managed. It has many common names such as bedstraw, cleavers, catchweed bedstraw, sticky-weed or sticky-willie, to name just a few. Its botanical name is Galium aparine. If you have ever fought with it, you will remember it, even it you didn’t know its name.
The annual weed bedstraw has made its presence known across Michigan gardens.
Bedstraw. Photo credit: Ted Bodner, plants.usda.gov
Every spring, some obnoxious or annoying weed becomes a big pest in many yards and gardens. Andy Warhol’s statement made long ago could also be applied to weeds: “They all get their 15 minutes of fame.” Some magic confluence of temperatures and rainfall has favored it over all the other weeds residing in many yards.
Because bedstraw gallops over and around all surrounding plants, there is no herbicide that can be used safely. The only option is the gardener’s usual “seek and destroy” of pulling and bagging it up. Luckily, it is shallowly rooted. The only good part is that the prickly plants can be shaped into a ball and lobbed out of the bed. If bedstraw is composted, the seeds will survive. It may be necessary to put it in a black, plastic bag, add a little water and lay the closed bag in the sun with the intention of steaming the seeds into submission.
Bedstraw produces small, white flowers followed by many small fruit that contain two seeds each. The round, green fruit and seeds are also prickly cling-tights. It is very easy for people or animals to pick up a load of hitchhiking seeds and transport them to a new area. The leaf layout is distinctive. The six to eight narrow, green leaves are arranged in whorls around the stem.
Keep in mind that bedstraw can grow in the late spring and fall, too. So be on the lookout for this grabby weed and pull it when it is small. And remember that next year, another weed will have its moment of fame.
Habit: This plant can survive in heavy, waterlogged as well as dry soil. It has tiny, star-shaped, greenish-white flowers, from June to August. These develop into globular fruits, or burrs, which are also covered with hooked hairs which cling to clothes and animal fur, aiding seed dispersal. Seedlings that emerge in the autumn reach a height of 10-20 cm at which stage they overwinter. They are not damaged by frost. Stem growth begins again in April, rapidly increasing as days lengthen.
What: This annual weed is a rapid grower, and can form dense patches, pulling down surrounding plants. It is the small hooked hairs growing out of the stems and leaves which latch on, giving the name Sticky Grass or Sticky Willy. Geese particularly enjoy eating it – hence the nickname Goosegrass!
This week’s plant in our Wednesday Weed series is Goosegrass, also known as Cleavers, or Sticky Willy.
Goosegrass, Cleavers or Sticky Willy Galium aparine
In this weekly series, we take a quick look at common garden weeds. How they grow, what benefits they bring to the garden, and how to manage them. Organic growers recognise the importance of these native plants. Insects and birds need the flowers and seeds – and gardeners, cooks and herbalists can harvest some nutrient rich foliage.
Benefits: Cleaver seeds can be roasted and are claimed to be an excellent coffee substitute (however they do have a laxative and emetic effect.) The dried matt of foliage was once used to stuff mattresses, whereas the roots create a permanent red dye.
For more detailed information on over 100 individual weeds, go to the superbly researched Weeds List, and here for how to manage them.
Control: As this is an annual weed, hand pulling and hoeing will all help – especially before flowering and seed setting. Alternatively a thick mulch in early spring or late autumn will reduce seedlings’ ability to emerge.