Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cleavers in the Soup Pot

As a follow-up to the previous blog on Galium aparine, also known by it's common name of 'cleavers', I decided to try some in a soup pot.  In my research, I found that cleavers has been used for centuries in herbal teas and as an addition to soups because of its high Vitamin C content and its many medicinal qualities.  The raw plant is inedible because of the clinging nature of the hooks so cooking is needed to soften them.  You wouldn't want the little 'cleavers' stuck in your throat. 

I cut about 3" off the tips of some of the young plants in my garden to put in the soup pot with chicken broth and shredded chicken breast.  The plant tips were already sticky, even at their young age.  Since I needed to boil the quinoa for 15 minutes that I would be adding, I tossed the cleavers in at the same time and cooked both at a low boil.  The cleavers made a fizzing sound when I dropped them in the boiling broth.  Could it have been from the tiny horns bursting?  Then I dished them all up.

The tips were edible, albeit tasteless (I expected at least a "green" flavor), but further down the boiled stems the hooks were still somewhat bristly.  Maybe just the top 2" of growth would be best if using it in a soup.  A more favorable use may be as an herbal tea where the infusion of the plants--either dried or fresh--will draw out the rich Vitamin C it contains and the other medicinal properties the plant has been known for in its long history.

I'm still intrigued by the red dye you can get from the roots, and the coffee-like drink from the dried and roasted seeds.  I'll be revisiting this 'wicked' but interesting weed again...

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Wicked Weed Indeed: Galium aparine

When we look over the weeds that show up in our gardens every year, most are easily recognizable like lambsquarters, bindweed, thistle, many of the sedges and spurges, and most of the grasses.  But last year a new plant started growing around my gardens that I hadn’t seen before; with a vibrant green color, dainty foliage, and tiny white flowers.  It was growing under many of my trees, along the fence line and in other areas where I had put leaf mulch over the years.

It wasn’t until the end of the growing season that I realized this was not a plant to fool with.  The plants had become rampant vines reaching over 6 feet high to climb up into my trees, and thickly covered plants in my tubs and raised beds until they were almost shaded out.  The tiny white flowers had been replaced by prickly burrs.

When I tried to pull out the plants, the tiny hooks on the leaves and stems scratched the skin on my bare arms and the burrs stuck to my gloves and my clothes, clinging to me like Velcro.  After putting on a long sleeved shirt I went back to work, pulling out all of the plants I could find. 

Then it was time to find out what I was dealing with.

A Google search using words describing the plant soon brought me to Images of possible candidates; and before long I spotted it—Galium aparine!

Galium aparine is an herbaceous annual plant in the Rubiaceae family—the same family as Coffee, Gardenia, Sweet Woodruff, Bouvardia, Pentas and many other cultivated plants.  Its most common name is “cleavers” for the way it clings to everything; but it has many other names including, goosegrass, grip-grass, stickywilly, stickyjack, catchweed, and Robin-run-the hedge. 

Although there are native forms of Galium aparine in the North American continent--mainly found in deciduous woods, thickets and rocky coastal bluffs--the weedy type in most gardens was likely introduced from contaminated seeds brought by early settlers from Eurasia and quickly spread by hitching rides on animal fur and on human clothing.

Indigenous peoples on many continents have used Galium aparine, for centuries for its numerous medicinal qualities and the red dye produced from its roots.  The cooked greens are considered rich in Vitamin C and the roasted seeds can be used as a coffee substitute (coffea is a close cousin). 

I also found out why Galium aparine chose my garden: it prefers and thrives on soils that are nutrient-rich, loamy, clayey and which contain humus.  After years of amending and improving my clay soil, along comes a plant that boldly lets me know how good it is.  So how can I be ticked off with a plant like that? Because once established in my gardens the plant will effectively compete with all of my other plants for light, water and nutrients, by smothering or climbing over any plants in its way.

Controlling Galium aparine is fairly easy if done early in the season.  The young plants can be pulled out by hand or covered with a thick layer of mulch to smother them.  This might be a good time to try some in a soup-pot because of its nutritional value.

Herbicides can also be used on early growth but the plant has an extended germination period so one application will not likely be enough.

If you wait until the plants have grown to maturity, be prepared to have to roll the vines into big balls like tumbleweeds and dispose of them outside of the garden.  Don’t even think of putting them in the compost pile.  Plan to also spend time picking the burrs off of your clothing and disposing of them where they are unable to germinate.   Or make use of the burrs by drying and roasting them to make a coffee-like beverage.

A really bad infestation of this wicked weed can take as long as 3 years of complete removal before seed production occurs.   I am now starting year one…

**Photo credit:  Douglas Ladd @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database/USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species.  South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.