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Galium

Cleavers; Galium Aparine L.
Madder Family; RUBIACEÆ

    "Velcro Plant" is a modern name for this clinging weed. Either Burdock's burs, or the Cleavers plant, in fact, inspired that million-dollar gripping fabric that has taken the world by storm in the last 20 years. Cleavers is more sticky than Burdock, being quite unmatched in its ability to clutch. Unmistakable, unforgettable, it is a fascinating little pest.
    Appropriate names indicative of its nature are Cling Rascal, Sticky Willie, Gripgrass, Catchweed, Sweethearts, Beggar Lice, Stick-a-Back, Hayriff, Goosegrass, Robin-Run-the-Hedge, and Gentleman's Tormentors.
    It is European surely, and its North American status is disputed. Some people aver it's native here, others think it is just thoroughly naturalized; one contingent holds that this area has both native and introduced races of the same species. In any case, Cleavers is now common in shady, disturbed soil, such as along trails in wooded parks. Some gardeners also battle it.
    Seedlings spring forth in fall, winter or spring. Their roots are paltry, but the stems, square and bristly, are an engineering marvel. They ascend, flop, catch on anything growing nearby, and on themselves if need be, to form a tangled, gripping web. By late April the tiny white flowers begin opening. The 1 to 3 inch long leaves are in whorls of 5 to 8.
    Cleavers makes seedballs in pairs, covered with hooked barbs. When you walk through woods in Seattle, your socks and pants legs (even skin if it's hairy) end up with seeds from any or all of the following: Cleavers, Enchanter's Nightshade, Herb Robert, Sweet Cicely, and Trail Plant. Go in sunnier sites and augment your accidental seed-collecting with painfully sharp grass seeds, and Forget-me-not seed husks. When people or animals pick off these hitch-hiking seeds, the plants tend to grow anew wherever the seeds should land.
    This small scrambler is actually useful. It can be eaten, either raw (if chewed valiantly into submission) or cooked, whereupon it withers into a wimpy mass. Either way the flavor is bland. The unripe seeds can be eaten, too, if you "skin" them with your teeth or fingers. Ripe seeds are brewed into a coffee substitute.
    Cleavers is a cousin of coffee, and of Dyer's Madder, and Sweet Woodruff. In medicine its attributes include alterative, aperient, diuretic, tonic, refrigerant, vulnerary; it's been used to fight cancer, rabies, psoriasis, and ulcers. Matted and bunched up, the stems were formerly employed as a sieve to strain hairs out of milk.
    So, next time you angrily tear or rip this vegetable spiderweb off your legs, or plants, you might give it a nibble, in return.

    Originally published as the Seattle Tilth newsletter Weed of the Month in February 1992, along with an illustration from a book.

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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