The rain has caused many weeds to thrive, and it seems impossible to keep up with their rampant growth. As I was admiring the tulips yesterday, it was obvious that a sprawling weed with sticky stems and leaves was merrily taking over the Deck Garden. I first noticed it wending its way through the irises. The plant looks similar to madder, and also bears a little resemblance to its cousin, sweet woodruff in that its leaves circle around the stem like wheel spokes. Nearby, it was trying to avoid detection by interweaving itself in the columbines.
It will soon develop tiny white flowers at the very tip of the stems, and then quickly at the tips of each branch. After flowering, small ball-shaped seed pods that are very sticky form. Even the gentlest brush releases them onto pant legs, socks and jacket cuffs. They are quickly attached to animal fur and then released throughout the world. I found a baby cleaver in one of the potager’s paths, probably a result of my neglect to pull every sticky ball from a pant leg after weeding last fall. Here they are a bit closer, climbing up the deck wall! The plant is generally known as cleavers but common folk often call it “goosegrass.” The scientific name (Galium aparine) comes from the Greek word “aparo” which means “to seize” and that’s exactly what the plant does. It clings to everything! It is a member of the bedstraw family that includes madder and sweet woodruff, and like madder, the roots of cleavers will yield a red dye. Here one can almost see the rounded flower buds that have formed. If I can’t get into the garden soon, there will be thousands and thousands of sticky seed balls throughout this garden.
Dioscorides mentions that stems of cleavers were matted together to form a strainer for milk. I guess that was before cheesecloth was invented, but I can see that it would work, and it wouldn’t take long to gather enough sticky strands to make one. Early writers even advised eating cleavers as an early spring vegetable, claiming that it was a tonic for the blood and liver and as a colon cleanser. Some also recommended the plant as a dressing for wounds or to induce sleep.
Interestingly, lacemakers stuck the green seed balls on pins to make the heads larger so the forming lace would not slip out of place. The small seeds apparently also make a good coffee substitute, but I can’t imagine having the patience to make it. The sticky balls are tiny, and the seeds inside are even smaller! One must gather the stems and allow them to wither and dry. Pick the seeds off and place them in cold water, allowing all the excess debris and seed coatings to float to the surface. Drain, spreading the black seeds in a shallow pan to roast in a hot oven for about 20 min. Cool and grind the seeds. Use 2-3 T. per pint of boiling water, steeping 10 min before straining in to cups.
Cleavers was also used as an underarm deodorant, which many claim is very effective. Place a large handful of stalks and leaves in a quart of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 min. Cool, strain and bottle. The decoction keeps for about a week.
The plant is an annual, widespread, growing in sun or shade and reaching a height of 3’. If you would like to try either of these recipes but do not have cleavers in your garden, come weed them out of mine! If the rain doesn’t stop, and the soil dry a bit so I can step into the gardens to weed, there will be plenty for all!