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weed with tiny white flowers that have sticky seeds

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.

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.

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.

Bedstraw. Photo credit: Ted Bodner, plants.usda.gov

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.

The annual weed bedstraw has made its presence known across Michigan gardens.

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.

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.

Weed seeds spread in a variety of ways, whether traveling by water, by air, or on animals. The group of weeds nicknamed the “hitchhikers” are seeds that stick to clothing and fur, making it difficult to dislodge them immediately. Their variously barbed adaptations ensure that the seeds will travel far and wide via animal locomotion, and most can be eventually shaken off down the road somewhere.

Although it might sound like all fun and games, the weeds spread by people are not only difficult to contain, they’re costly for everyone. Farmers lose an estimated $7.4 billion each year in productivity to eradicate these pest plants. Humans are spreading these seeds at a rate of 500 million to one billion seeds a year in cars alone!

What are Hitchhiker Weeds?

Although the weeds within crop stands are annoying, those that appear in fields can be downright dangerous for grazing animals like horses and cattle.

You can help slow the spread of these hitchhikers by carefully inspecting your clothing and pets before emerging from a wild area full of seeding plants, making sure to leave those unwanted weeds behind. Also, reseeding disturbed areas like your garden plot with a cover crop can ensure that there’s too much competition for hitchhikers to thrive.

Even now, they’re lingering along the roadside waiting for you to pick them up and take them wherever you’re going. Some will ride inside your car, others on the chassis and a few lucky ones will find their way into your clothing. Yes, weeds that spread by people, or hitchhiking, have certainly taken advantage of you this year. In fact, the average car carries two to four seeds for hitchhiker plants at any given time!