A characteristic of all Bedstraws is leaves in a whorl and small 3 or 4-parted flowers in branching clusters. Identification between many of the species is difficult and not obtained from a cursory view. The flowers are more often white but can be pale yellow. Cleavers is a native annual forb, growing 4 to 40 inches long on weak 4-angled stems that typically sprawl using downward pointing clinging hooks to attach itself. Stems produce minor side branches.
The leaves appear along the stem in spaced whorls of 6 or 8. Each leaflet is narrow, widest just below the abruptly pointed tip, and very hairy with backward pointing prickles. There is one main central vein, quite pronounced on the underside. Leaflets do not have teeth or lobes but the margins have stiff hairs. The entire whorl can be up to 3 inches across.
The inflorescence is a stalked cluster rising from the leaf axils along the stem, usually composed of 3 to 5 flowers.
The flowers are quite small, about 1/8 inch, 4-parted, with white to greenish-white corolla petals that are ovate in shape, widest near the middle, then taper to a pointed tip. There are 4 stamens with yellowish anthers. These are placed alternately with the petals. There are two whitish styles that connect to a 2-celled ovary. The calyx is vestigial, with the 2-celled ovary directly below the corolla and is covered with hooked hairs.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a dry 2-celled seed capsule that retains the hooked hair surface. Each cell has one seed. The hooked hairs enable the capsule to attach itself to clothes, fur and feathers. Seeds in the soil bank are viable for 2 to 3 years.
Habitat: Cleavers prefers shady moist sites but accepts full sun when there is adequate moisture. It colonizes waste places and abandoned areas by reseeding itself. The root system is a shallow branching taproot.
Names: The genus name, Galium, is from the Greek word, gala, meaning 'milk' and is a reference to the use of come Galium species to curdle milk. The species name, aparine, is the Greek name for Cleavers, being derived from aparo, meaning "to seize". This species in native to both the new and old worlds. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. As to the common names - 4 are listed above, the plant is known to have 59 common names.
Comparisons: Look for the weak stems, leaves in a whorl of 6 to 8, dense hooked hairs on stems, leaves, and seed capsules. See 'comparison' note at bottom of the page.
Above: The flower clusters form from the leaf axils. All parts have downward and backward point stiff hairs. Drawing courtesy Kurt Stüber's Online Library
Below: The flower is tiny, 4-petaled corolla sitting on top of the 2-celled ovary which is covered with hooked hairs and turns dark brown at maturity.
Below: A typical leaf whorl. Note the angled stem and the stiff hair on all edges.
Above: The upper side and under side of a leaflet. All surfaces are hairy and the single central vein is prominent on the underside
Below: A section of the 4-angled stem showing the downward point stiff hairs.
Eloise Butler may have recorded this plant as being present in the Garden, perhaps as early as 1907 when she noted "3 species Galium" on May 25th. Martha Crone listed it on her 1951 Garden Census, and it has been listed on all the later census. It is fairly widespread in Minnesota, most absences are in the northern part of the state, particularly the Arrowhead. In North America it is native to all the U.S. and in the southern Canadian Provinces it is considered both native in certain areas and introduced in others.
There are about 60 species of Bedstraw in North America. Twelve species are reported to be found in Minnesota, two of which are considered introductions. Of the ten native species, 6 are found in the Garden: G. aparine, Cleavers; G. asprellum, Rough Bedstraw; G. boreale, Northern Bedstraw; G. concinnum, Shining Bedstraw; G. trifidum, Threepetal Bedstraw; and G. triflorum, Fragrant Bedstraw.
Comparisons: Of the Bedstraws native to Minnesota the common ones are: Galium aparine L.- (Stickywilly aka Cleavers) which has very weak stems, 4-petal flowers, hairy leaves of 6 to 8 and hooked hairs on the seed capsule, grows as an annual; G. asprellum, Rough Bedstraw, has rough stems and leaves (whorl of 6 - 4 or 5 on side branches), is sprawling, and only a few 4-part flowers per cluster, but the clusters fork 1 to 3 times, seed pod is without bristles; G. labradoricum, Labrador Bedstraw, is sprawling, leaves with backward curving tips in a whorl of 4, clusters of only 3 flowers and is found in wet cold places; G. tinctorium, Small Bedstraw, is also sprawling in wet places, leaves of 4 to 6 in a whorl with very small 3-lobed flowers with stalks less than 1/4 inch long; G. trifidum, Three-lobed Bedstraw, is sprawling, leaves in a whorl of 4, small clusters of 1 to 3 3-parted flowers with stalks over 1/4 inch long; and G. triflorum, Fragrant Bedstraw, sprawling, with abruptly pointed leaves in a whorl of 6 with a vanilla odor when crushed, 4 -parted flowers in forked clusters of 3, smooth stem nodes, hair on other parts and leaf edges.
Lore and Uses: The seeds, lightly roasted, are said to make a caffeine free coffee substitute. Merritt Fernald (Ref. #6) wrote European writers are agreed that the seeds of Cleavers make the best substitute for coffee in our northern flora. When dried and slightly roasted the seeds have the flavor or aroma of coffee. This fact is of special interest since the genus Galium belongs to the same natural family [the Rubiaceae] as true coffee." A tea made from parts of the entire plant, except the root, was used for kidney stones and bladder problems. The shoots are rich in Vitamin C and were once used a spring tonic and a cure for scurvy. A wash made from the plant was said to fade freckles and sunburn as well as treat psoriasis. A tea brew was drunk to help coagulate the blood. (Ref.#7)
NicolasCulpeper (Ref. #4b) wrote that "The juice of the herb and the seed together taken in wine, helpeth those bitten with an adder, by preserving the heart from the venom. It is familiarly taken in broth, to keep them lean and lank that are apt to grow fat.. . .It is a good remedy in the spring, eaten (being first chopped small, and boiled well) in water-gruel to cleanse the blood, and strengthen the liver, thereby to keep the body in health, and fitting it for the change of season that is coming."
Parkinson (Ref.#34d) wrote, in regards the fine hooked hairs, that "the herb serveth well the Country people in stead of a strainer, to cleare their milke from strawes, haires, of any other thing that falleth into it." The Greek Dioscorides reported that shepherds of his day made such sieves.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"