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A few mornings ago my love and I saw a small spring wonder. We were sitting in his living room, drinking tea no doubt, when the rose bush just under the window began to quiver. He crept up to the window, peeked out, and exclaimed that there was a tiny bird pecking insects from the stems of the plant. We were entranced, enchanted, enraptured. “What do you think it is!?” he asked. We decided that it was 'one of those little brown ones'...
The things of the hedge are often unobtrusive and easily overlooked. When they are birds they are often 'those little brown ones', when they are plants they are often 'one of those green leafy things'. And thus they keep their commonplace mystery. So it is with goosegrass, which is one of our most omnipresent 'green leafy things'. The ubiquitous nature of goosegrass is clear from the range of 'folk names' that it has attracted during its irrepressible journey across our wild places; cleavers, clivers, catchweed, sticky willy, sticky willow, robin~run~the~hedge, stickyweed, velcro weed, grip grass, clabber grass, coachweed, cleaver wort, goose hair, gosling weed, hedge burrs, milk sweet, poor robin, loveman, stick~a~back, sweethearts, savoyan, scratchweed, barweed, hedheheriff, robin~run~in~the~grass, mutton chops, everlasting friendship, amor de hortelano, ladies' straw, eriffe, gia maria, goosebill, grateron, hayruff, kaz yogurtoto, and zhu yang yang. Quite a presence for such an unprepossessing green being and yet, when I point it out to people they have rarely heard of it or noticed its existence.
My own first memory of goosegrass is within the last ten years; it may be that I had noticed it before but, without a name to pin it there, it had slipped through my conscious mind like mist. What I do remember is that I was walking through the a quieter part of Avebury stone circle and that around the bottom of a small and twisted tree were some unobtrusive little plants with beautiful whorls of leaves that were sticky to the touch. I don't even remember who told me what they were but, whenever I see goosegrass now, I always think of that moment in Avebury stone circle. That they were close to a stone cottage that I often daydream about living in has only added to their place in my 'folk-telling' of the land. When I think of goosegrass I think of that little stone cottage with its blossom tree and there are always white sheets blowing in the wind on a washing line. That, for me, is goosegrass; a symbol of what is simple, common, in the best sense of the word, and feels like home.
The scientific Latin name of goosegrass is 'galium aparine' and it is an herbaceous annual plant, which means that it completes its life cycle, from germination to the production of seed within one year before dying. It is part of the Rubiaceae family of plants, which is known as the coffee, madder, or bedstraw family, and has 13,000 members species, ranging from trees, to shrubs and herbs. Being part of the same family as the coffee bean, the seeds of goosegrass can be dried and roasted and used as an excellent low-caffeine coffee alternative.
So, where can we find goosegrass? Probably all it needs is to look down when we are walking in
woods, hedgerows, and waste places, and also in our gardens if we allow the wild its place there. It is described by herbalist and naturopath Lucinda Warner as “one of the first spring allies to appear” and is often found close to those other inhabitants of forgotten corners, the stinging nettles. How they make the wasteland green! Goosegrass has creeping stems, which can be 3ft or more long, and which branch and grow along the ground and through other plants. They are born explorers and can be especially recognised by the tiny hook-like hairs that grow from their stems and leaves. These give them their 'sticky' feeling to the touch and also enable them to climb and attach their seeds, or burrs, to animal fur which helps their dispersal. In the early spring to summer they produce tiny star-shaped white flowers and the plants provide food for the larvae of many butterfly species.
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Goosegrass is native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia and is naturalised “throughout most of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Southern America, Australia, some oceanic islands, and scattered locations in Africa.” (1) Plants may not be able to move according to the perspective of most humans but the sticky burrs of goosegrass have managed to move a very long way. In many places it is considered to be a noxious weed, although that of course just means that it grows where we haven't decided to put it and often refuses to leave when asked! Which brings us to goosegrass's relationship with humankind.
Goosegrass is both an edible and a medicinal plant. When cooked it has been compared to spinach, although it is said to have a slightly bitter taste and so is better in soups and stews rather than eaten on its own. It is also possible to eat the leaves raw, although cooking removes the tiny hooks, and there is a report from Mulcheney, Somerset of someone who remembers nibbling the raw shoots of goosegrass as a child before feeding the whole plant to their ducks. (2) It is a plant that is much prized by geese for nibbling purposes and many of its related names may come from this link, or from its goose-foot shaped leaves.
Medicinally goosegrass is a gentle diuretic and lymphatic tonic, which cleanses the system after the stagnant months of winter. As a poultice or wash, its juice and pulp has been used traditionally to treat skin ailments, minor wounds, and burns. Its pulp has also been used to alleviate poisonous bites or stings. In 1653, Nicholas Culpepper said that;
“It is under the dominion of the Moon. The juice of the herb and the seed together taken in wine, helpeth those bitten with an adder, by preserving the heart from the venom. It is familiarly taken in broth, to keep them lean and lank that are apt to grow fat.” (3)
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Goosegrass can also alleviate anxiety, as it has mildly sedative affects, may lower blood pressure, and tea made from its stalks and leaves can remove obstructions from the throat. There are also reports that it is helpful in treating cancer. It can also safely be used for the long-term treatment of animals and is especially helpful for cats suffering from feline urinary tract disease (3). An excellent article on the nature of goosegrass and its healing abilities by Lucinda Warner of 'Whispering Earth' can be found here. I love her belief that goosegrass, as one of the first green beings to appear in the spring, is perfectly placed to cleanse our bodies after the winter and also encourages us to play, and to begin moving our bodies again, through the many traditional games that involve chasing others and sticking goosegrass onto them. She particularly mentions, 'how many cleavers can you stick on someone's back before they notice'! There are also many folk beliefs involving throwing goosegrass at a young woman to see whether they stick; if they do then she has a admirer, if they fall then her hopes fall with them, although in some traditions the fallen plant is said to spell out the initial of her love to come (2).
A further use of our unobtrusive green companion can be guessed at from its Latin name, which translates as 'milk seizer', and physician and botanist Dioscorides (40 – 90 CE) reported that Greek shepherds would gather together the stems of goosegrass to create a rough sieve for straining milk. Carl Linnaeus (1707 - 1778), one of the founders of modern ecology, wrote of the same use in Sweden and the practice has continued into modern times. The plants were also used to curdle milk in cheese making and it was believed that contact with them would convey their healing properties to the dairy products. Its roots can also be used to create a permanent red dye and, like all plants of the 'bedstraw' family, its dried leaves were traditionally used to stuff mattresses, particularly as its hooks meant that it could be shaped into a stable mat that would provide uniform thickness. Mary is said to have used goosegrass to make a bed for her newborn child.
Like all beings of the hedge, goosegrass is rarely noticed but holds much magic. We would do well not to underestimate these little green plants that we so often don't know the name of. Oh, and the 'little brown bird' turned out to be a chiffchaff...
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