Perhaps best known as Sticky Willy, Galium aparine – USDA growing zones 3 to 7 – is an annual plant, largely considered to be a weed. With some basic steps, however, the savvy gardener can effectively remove it from his or her yard. Also known as Goosegrass, Coachweed, Catchweed and Cleavers, it can cause some serious problems for both gardeners and farmers.
The weed can be found around the world. Most often, Sticky Willy grows in moist and shady areas such as areas filled with waste, on roadsides and in gardens. The species can also affect the growing of hay, rapeseed, sugar beets and various cereals.
Why Get Rid of Sticky Willy?
Applying a heavy layer of organic mulch or using plastic mulch can also prevent the seeds from reaching the soil or getting enough light to grow.
The sap of the plant can cause severe skin irritation in people who are sensitive to it. If left unchecked, the plant can also severely hinder other plants’ ability to grow. If left unchecked in agricultural operations, the plants can reduce crop yield in some species by between 30 and 60 percent.
Sticky Willy is quite easy to identify, thanks to the downward-pointing brown prickles on its leaves – which appear in groups of between six and eight – and stems. Its oblong-shaped eggs have slightly notched tips. Its seed leaves, or cotyledons, are smooth, however. If allowed to mature, Sticky Willy can grow to be 40 inches tall. Large groups of the plants often spread in dense mats over the ground, made all the more dense by their spines. Their flowers are four-parted and often white or greenish-white.
Some gardeners call it the Velcro plant. Others know it as cleavers or sticky weed. My favorite common name for Galium aparine? Sticky Willy.
To prepare a spring tonic, she makes a tincture of sticky Willy by steeping crushed plants in a jar with vodka for about six weeks. Then she strains and dilutes it to make the tonic. Hmm. Add a squeeze of lime and a splash of simple syrup and this sounds like a tonic that could catch on at happy hours around town. A sticky Willy on the rocks?
I don’t have much of a lawn, but for those of you who do, Daphne Richards, Travis County’s extension agent, says you’re having more weed problems this year (sticky Willy as well as others) because of recent heavy drought, high heat and watering restrictions. “Lawns were stressed and had no time to recover before the weather got cold and they went dormant. The dead patches in dormant lawns allowed space for the weeds to root and take off with all of the winter rain.”
But no matter what you call it, if you do any kind of yard work or gardening, you’ve probably rubbed up against this annual whose seeds germinate in the cool wet weather of late winter and then grow rapidly into swirly, sticky stems of green that glue themselves to your fence, your pets and your socks.
According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, sticky Willy is a native throughout North America. Under “benefits,” it is listed as having a “conspicuous flower.” Well, maybe if you’re using a magnifying glass. The Wildflower Center entry also points out that the plant is sometimes called bedstraw because one of its sweeter smelling cousins (G. verum) was used to stuff mattresses in medieval times.
Catchweed Bedstraw, Galium aparine
Galium aparine is a distinctive herbaceous annual weed with a number of common names including cleavers, bedstraw, catchweed bedstraw, grip grass, stickywilly, and others. This fast-growing plant in the madder famliy (Rubiaceae), native to the northern hemisphere (North America and Eurasia), occurs in all US states except Hawaii, and in most provinces of Canada and northern Mexico. It can grow in a variety of habitats, including forests and woodlands, meadows, prairies, disturbed areas, and cultivated crops. It is commonly found in low shrubby vegetation, arable fields, and in gardens with moist soils. It causes problems in crops during harvesting when bedstraw becomes tangled with the crop or equipment.
This plant supposedly has many medicinal uses. The dried and roasted fruits can used to make a coffee substitute (this plant is in the same family as coffee, Coffea spp.). The young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.
The leaves of catchweed bedstraw are arranged in whorls
The leaves and stems of G. aparine have fine hook-like hairs (similar to Velcro ® ) that readily adhere to clothing and animal fur, giving rise to some of its common names. Because they cling to each other, the plants don’t mat down easily when used as a mattress filling, giving rise to the name bedstraw. The scratchy hairs can be mildly irritating to those with sensitive skin. The simple linear leaves are borne in whorls of six to eight along the square stems with few branches. The tip of each leaf has a sharp firm point.
Plants often can’t stand up on their own, so sprawl onto others for support.
Seeds germinate very early in the spring, to produce a gangly plant with long stems. Plants can grow up to 6 feet but can’t stand up on their own, so they often use other upright species for support, clambering over the other vegetation with the aid of hooked bristles at the stem angles. Left on their own, they remain low and sprawling, forming dense tangles only a foot or so in height, shading out any smaller plants they grow over. In some areas, this species grows as a winter annual, germinating in the fall, and overwinter as a small plant, to grow quickly in spring.
The tiny white or pale green flowers are born terminally or in leaf axils.
In early spring to summer, tiny, inconspicuous pale green or white flowers are borne in the leaf axils or terminally. Each inflorescence (a cyme) has 3 to 5 flowers. Each flower is only 2-3 mm across, with four petals. Once pollinated by flies or beetles, spherical fruits of two nearly round halves are produced. Each fruit half contains a single small, spherical, oval or kidney shaped seed. The gray to brown seeds are 1-4 mm in diameter and are covered with small tubercles. The hooked bristles create a burr, which is easily dispersed on animal fur or clothing. Individual plants produce 300-400 seeds, although some specimens will produce many more.
Hooked bristles on the seed capsule create a burr, which easily sticks to animal fur.
Seeds remain viable in the soil for only a couple of years. They survive passage through the digestive tracts of cattle, horses, pigs, goats, and birds, so bringing uncomposted manure into a garden may inadvertently introduce this weed.
Catchweed bedstraw is best controlled while still small.
This weed is not difficult to control if pulled or hoed out while small, before flowering and seed production commences. G. aparine has a shallow root system, with a branching taproot. However, it is weakly connected to the stem so that when weeding, the roots often remain behind (and can grow again) when the tops are pulled. The brittle stems break easily, so it is difficult to remove an entire plant intact. Nearby fragile plants may be damaged as it is pulled if its leaves or stems stick to the tender plants.
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison
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