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.
Northern Bedstraw is a native perennial forb, growing or erect stems, up to 3-1/2 foot high; stems can have many branches within the inflorescence and the root stocks can send up multiple stems. Stems are 4-angled, green, smooth, but there may be some hair at the nodes which are slightly enlarged.
The leaves are entire (without teeth) but the margins may have some hair and the underside usually can have hair; they form a whorl of 4, well spaced on the stem. They are lanceolate to linear in shape, pointed tips and 3 veined, each leaf up to 1 inch long and stalkless.
The inflorescence is a showy branched terminal cluster (a panicle) on numerous small flowers. The panicle divides into 3-forked clusters, and each cluster may divide again into another group of 3. Each division is subtended by a small elliptical green hairy bract.
The flowers are 4-parted, up to 1/4 inch wide with creamy colored corollas that form 4 spreading lobes that have pointed tips. There are 4 stamens with yellowish anthers and pale yellowish-white filaments. These are placed alternate between the petals. The single whitish style connects to a hairy 2-celled ovary. The calyx is vestigial, with the 2-celled ovary, hairy on the outside, directly below the corolla.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a two-parted seed capsule, looking like a pair of testicles, that have short hairs when immature. These hairs drop off at maturity. The individual seeds are brown in color.
Habitat: Northern Bedstraw grows from creeping horizontal rhizomes. It will form large patches via creeping roots, it is not particular as to soil type and can tolerate partial shade and dry conditions once established, but its preference is for somewhat moist well drained soils. It is found in moist to dry prairies and open woods. It can be propagated by dividing the roots or by sowing seed after it has had a cold stratification period of 4 to 6 weeks, but good germination results have been obtained without stratification (University of Washington Herbarium).
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, boreale, is from the Latin borealis, for 'northern'. 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.
Comparisons: See bottom of page.
Above: The upper stem and inflorescence. Drawing of Northern Bedstraw from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 1st photo - The four stamens are placed between the 4 petals. 2nd photo. A stem node with leaf whorl and two inflorescence stems. Note the swelling at the node.
Below: 1st photo - The leaf is stalkless with 3 main veins (more noticable from the underside) and fine hair on the margins. 2nd photo - The underside of the leaf has fine hair all over.
Below: 1st photo - The flower clusters branch into 3 segments which then subbranch into segments of 3. 2nd photo - Note in the center photo the 4-angled stem, the fine hair on the cluster stems and the hairy bracts at the base of each division. Below the corolla of the opening flower at the top left in the photo you see the hairy 2-chambered ovary - the calyx is vestigial. 3rd photo - Leaves are in a whorl of 4, without stalks and hair. Stems are 4-angled.
Notes: Northern Bedstraw is indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler catalogued 3 species of Galium on May 25, 1907 without specifying which ones. On May 28, 1910 she planted more plants that she obtained within Glenwood Park [which surrounded the area of the Garden], using the name Gallium boreale, which would confirm it is indigenous to the Garden Area. Northern Bedstraw was listed on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time. It is native to almost all counties in Minnesota except for five in the SW quadrant. It is widespread in North America where it is absent only in 10 states in the southeastern U.S. and in Canada it is absent in Nunavut, Newfoundland and Labrador.
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.- (Cleavers aka Stickywilly) which has very weak stems, 4-petal flowers, hairy leaves in a whorl of 6 or 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 common name of 'bedstraw' comes from the use by the early Colonists in the New World of the dried foliage of this readily available plant as bedding for themselves and for their cattle as the dried leaves have a fragrant aroma which was pleasing when used as a pillow or mattress stuffing. They also have an astringent property but can be eaten in a salad. In the home garden G. boreale with its erect stems can create a backdrop for other prairie plants. The roots of the plant have been a source of a true-red dye for native peoples, obtained by mixing the root with wood ash and strawberry juice. If the concoction was boiled too long, it became yellow dye. It is also reported that the seeds make a good coffee substitute. There is also recorded use as a folk remedy for urinary tract problems and using the juice of the plant for healing wounds.
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.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"