Bedstraw / Cleavers
G. verum, G. trifidum, G. triflorum
Cleavers is called “cheese rennet” in many of the old herbals. Indeed, all species of galium curdle milk, providing a rich-colored, pleasant-tasting cheese. The genus name Galium is from the Greek word gala, meaning milk. European peasants still use it to make goat and sheep cheese.
Known also as Our Lady’s bedstraw, the galiums were used to stuff mattresses. A bedstraw is believed to have been one of the cradle herbs laid in the manger for the sweet baby Jesus. First Nations women used it under a furry skin to make a soft bed for their babies.
Geese are very fond of eating cleavers, hence its other longstanding common name, goosegrass. I’ve gathered it, when abundant, to nourish our chickens, ducks, geese and other domestic birds. Cows, horses, goats and sheep eat goosegrass with relish when fresh and green.
People enjoy eating some galiums too. Traditionally harvested as a spring tonic, they can be chopped and cooked like spinach. All the galiums have the same basic chemistry and similar medicinal effects. Bedstraw, G. verum, and cleavers, G. aparine, both contain rubichloric acid, gallotannic acid, citric acid, starch and chlorophyll.
A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar infused with these mineral-rich galiums adds a healthy dose of vitamins and mineral salts to a salad, or a glass of water. Gather cleavers seeds as they ripen in late summer. Lightly roasted, they make a coffee-like drink and are in fact, in the same family - Rubiaceae - as coffee.
Because they are diuretic, alterative and mildly astringent, the galiums are used by European healers as blood tonics and as reliable remedies for a range of problems including psoriasis, tonsillitis and tumors.
First Nations people also use the galiums to treat a variety of ailments. Cleavers are used by the Cherokee as a laxative, by the Penobscot to treat gonorrhea, and by the Ojibwa to treat kidney and urinary disorders. The Ojibwa apply an infusion of G. trifidum, small bedstraw, to soothe eczema, ringworm and other skin disorders. G. circaezans, wild licorice, and G. triflorum, sweet scented bedstraw, are both used by the Menominee as a remedy for kidney problems.
The galiums have a longstanding reputation around the world for healing those with tumors and skin eruptions. The infused oil, made from fresh leaves, flowers and stems, is applied frequently to the growth. Or, a poultice or compress of fresh leaves can be used. Drinking two cups of infusion of the dried plant, taking 20-40 drops of fresh plant tincture or consuming one quarter cup of juice daily add to the healing power in such instances.
Maria Treben, the wonderful Austrian herbalist and author of Healing with God’s Pharmacy, tells the story of a friend she met yearly at the Kneipp spa. One year she saw the woman had a noticeable goitre and she recommended a warm infusion of bedstraw, used as a deep gargle every day. The next year when they met again the goitre was gone. The woman reported that her husband had gathered fresh bedstraw daily and she had used it as directed. From the start she noticed the size of the goitre diminishing until finally it had completely disappeared.
In Southern Italia both galiums are used interchangeably. Cleavers are called caglio asprello or sperunia and bedstraw is known as caglio zolfino. An infusion is used as an astringent sitz bath to ease hemorrhoids. The flowers are used in an infusion with antispasmodic and diuretic action or to treat digestive system ailments. The galiums are used topically for the treatment of skin diseases of various kinds. The astringency of an infusion of bedstraw or cleavers, used as a wash or soak, helps heal any type of skin condition, sores, wounds, sunburn and smooths lines and tightens skin.
I value the galiums for their potent tonic and healing effects on the urinary tract. A daily dose of two to four cups of dried plant infusion, or 20-40 drops of fresh plant tincture in water, strengthens and tones the entire urinary system and is said to dissolve stones in the bladder.
The galiums are exceptional allies when the lymphatic system needs a hand. For those with tender breasts, swollen lymph glands, tonsillitis or prostate disorders, herbalists suggest drinking as many as four cups of infusion, or taking 40 drops of tincture in water, daily.
Pliny recommended eating bedstraw seed porridge to keep the body thin. Gerard recommended the ointment for weary travelers. The leaves and stem of the galiums yield a yellow dye, and the roots of G. tinctorium will dye red.
Flower Essence Cleavers flower essence releases tension and unhealthy attachments. Cleavers helps transition from a busy day into restful sleep.
Magical Lore Tie several sprigs of galiums into a bundle and dip in holy water, then use as a cleansing/blessing/healing spray around the house.
Culture Cleavers is an annual, growing to 3-to-6 feet long with thin square stems and narrow green leaves that grow in whorls. It sprawls across nearby plants, clinging with small teeth, hence the name “cleavers." Cleavers enjoy a rich, moist soil, preferring the edge of a garden or shady, wooded area. Broadcast seeds early in spring, or dig side roots and plant in new stands.
I’ve never planted galiums, as they grow abundantly on our farm in Maine and are the most prolific wild plant in my Italian garden. I gather cleavers’ leaves, stems and flowers as they come into bloom, tincture them in alcohol or vinegar, infuse them in oil and dry for infusions and teas.