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  The tiny white flowers had been replaced by prickly burrs.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.


  1. I have been fighting this weed on my lake bank for over three years. And tiny plants keep growing. So frustrating!

  2. Had this in small amounts for a while but there was a sudden explosion of it this last week. Now its growing profusely and in long sprawling masses... the weird thing is that aside from a few spots where I use to have vegetable beds the soil around my yard is pretty terrible.

  3. yea, this is a rat bastard of a pernicious weed... i think you can watch it grow its evil tendrils, blotting out the sun for good plants.

  4. cleavers (aka bedstraw) is awesome.. and good for you ! excellent for the lower lymph :-)

  5. It caused my mom to break out in a poison oak like rash.

  6. Going on year 3 now and I'm finally making some SERIOUS progress!
    I have it down to just a few manageable patches here and there.
    Don't give up, keep at it, there IS hope!

  7. If I am seeing it correctly, this is also known as Cleavers and lead to the invention of velcro. This plant is one of the best lymph plants known. You can juice it and also make tea or tincture. The flower essence is also very useful, and you can google the flower essence of it, and any other "weeds" or "volunteers" that seem to "plague" you. I am in love with this little plant and all the "invasives" that have come to my yard. Herbalists and plant medicine people have always appreciated the plants that come as they often contain the flower essence medicine and the herbal medicine our bodies can benefit from if we take a look and find out what those things are. This year I had cleavers, oxalys, wild geranium, more plantain, sour grass and salsify. They are all useful as food, flower essence, and herbal. And, they were just what this menopausal lady needs for healing mind, emotions and body. Sometimes the weeds are such a gift. And, you can use most of them. This year, I even was juicing the grass oats and hay that came. Then into the compost pile. This kind of gardening might take more time, but might be more healing, and inspire a journey into the more subtle aspects of what the plants have to teach us, and for me, the least of that is patience and a willingness to listen.

  8. My garden is overrun for a few years this year has been the worst one as my health has been poor. I have attempted to clear sone away today and now im covered in a nettle type rash. I feel like ive lost my garden to it!! 😢😢😢