Bedstraw is a weed that bites back

It isn’t unusual to find common field weeds trying to invade our cultivated gardens, but sometimes we seem to be engaged in a never-ending battle.

Just as we get one weed under control, another tries to take hold and before long it becomes the Weed of the Year and stands out as the most annoying of all other weeds.

In our garden, the weed of the year seems to be Galium aparine, also known as Bedstraw. This weed has many other names as well, including Goosegrass, Cleavers, Catchweed and, my favorite, Stickywilly.

Galium, pronounced gal-lee-um, is a strange plant when compared with other common weeds. Its stems are long and brittle, and when handled, will easily break. They break so easily, in fact, that it is difficult to pull out an entire plant because each time the stem is grabbed onto and pulled, it practically falls apart and you have to keep going back for the rest of it.

But that’s not the worst part. The stems are covered with small, sticky hairs that like burdock (or Velcro), grab onto to everything, including humans and animals, who happen to brush by. For some humans and animals, these hairs can cause an allergic reaction that can be quite uncomfortable.

The husband found this out the hard way after deciding to do some weeding in one of the gardens. Although he wore gardening gloves while working, as he grabbed the stems of the bedstraw, the sticky hairs still brushed against his wrists and arms. Within 24 hours, his arms were covered with an itchy rash that within a few days erupted into blisters. Even after coating his arms with Calamine lotion, it was several days before the rash finally began to subside.

It’s hard to believe that in spite of bedstraw’s bad manners, this plant is also an herb. The name, Galium is from the Greek word, gala, meaning milk. The name was given because of the plant’s ability to form a dense mat, which enabled sheep herders to use it to strain milk curds while making cheese.

As an herb, bedstraw can be a useful plant. Its roots can be used to make a red dye. Rich in vitamin C, young shoots of the plant were used to make a spring tonic that also acts as a diuretic. The seeds were sometimes boiled to make a coffee-like brew and ironically, a tonic made from the plant also was used to combat skin irritations including psoriasis.

Growing as a garden weed, this plant forms a dense, tangled mat. If there are nearby plants, bedstraw will simply grow over them. It doesn’t seem to let anything get in its way. Because the stems are brittle and break off as they are pulled, the roots likely remain and the plant simply grows again. It will eventually give up, however, and can easily be controlled with a bit of vigilance and continued weeding.

An annual, the plant readily reseeds and spreads by using those sticky hairs to grab onto anything and anyone who may be passing by. Unlike burdock, it’s easy to brush the bedstraw stems and seeds from our clothes, but like that tiny piece of cellophane wrapper that doesn’t want to let go when we try to toss it into the trash, bedstraw grabs back and tries to hang on. It sticks to itself as well and can be rolled up into a ball of sorts and tossed away.

Native to every state except Hawaii, some areas don’t welcome this plant. In Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, the seeds are prohibited. Kentucky rates the plant as a threat while some Canadian provinces list bedstraw as a noxious weed.

Bedstraw will grow in full sun, but the prickly hairs grow more profusely when the plant is a bit shaded. The stems are square and groups of eight leaves grow around the stem in whorls. The stem’s lower leaves have a rounded shape and have a short stalk (petiole) that connects them to the stem. The upper leaves are lance-shaped and don’t have a petiole to connect them to the stem.

The flowers are white and star-shaped. The seed pods are small, globe-shaped capsules that are also covered with those prickly hairs.

I always wear gloves when weeding and so far haven’t had any problems if my skin comes in contact with the sticky stems of bedstraw. But for those who run the risk of contact dermatitis, be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves while weeding.

Animals also can be sensitive to bedstraw plants. If your dogs or cats wander where weeds are growing, they can suffer painful skin irritations as well.