The Galium genus is a very large genus with many species throughout the world. In my state of current residence, California, there are nearly a hundred species alone. Many of the species are very similar and difficult to separate – and I am talking species here, not subspecies!
All Galium species, members of the Madder Family, have four-sided stems and leaves that grow in whorled clusters from the stem, like the spokes on a wheel. The very small flowers are white or greenish. And all members of this genus smell good and taste sweet.
Cleavers (Galium aparine) and sweet-scented bedstraw (Galium triflorum) are two nearly identical-looking plants. Both are native and are common throughout North America, preferring moist, partially shaded habitats in forests, woods and along streams and ravines. The stems, leaves and fruits of cleavers and sweet-scented bedstraw are covered with varying numbers of hooked bristles which cause the plants to cling to passersby – human and animal.
The fragrant leaves and stems of these two Galium species were used as mattress and pillow stuffing (bedstraw). The young leaves are tender and can be eaten in salads or as a potherb. But remember that the hooks on the leaves do not discriminate between clothing and throats. I do not push my luck by eating hooked bristles.
A most pleasant tea can be made from fresh or dried leaves of either plant. I sometimes will drink the tea simply for the taste, since an infusion cannot choke me. Herbalists use the tea as a diuretic. Fresh juice from either plant is reported to soothe skin irritations and minor burns.
The situation with G. triflorum and G. aparine is additionally confusing because both plants are commonly called “bedstraw”.
Now that I have mentioned some of the similarities, in the next days I will introduce each plant separately, noting some differences between the two plants. The pictures today show the leaves: those of cleavers (G. aparine) are more linear with a long pointed tip while those of sweet-scented bedstraw (G. triflorum) are ovate with a shorter point at the tip. You can see from these pictures how much alike the two bedstraws/ cleavers are.
Galium comes from the Greek “gala” meaning “milk”. Previously, one member of this genus was used for curdling milk. In addition, Scandinavians used masses of cleaver leaves and stems to filter milk.