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Goosegrass (Galium aparine) Wild Edible Green & Coffee Substitute

Updated on July 12, 2012
Galium aparine leaves and stem showing the sticky, hooked hairs and small white flowers.
Galium aparine leaves and stem showing the sticky, hooked hairs and small white flowers. | Source

Galium aparine goes by a host of common names that vary from region to region and include goosegrass, cleavers, coachweed, catchweed, sweet woodruff, rennet herb, loveman, chicus, clabber-grass, cleaver’s herb, cleaves, barweed, hedgerif, hayriffe, cleverwort, eriffe, stickywilly, grip grass, clithers, hayruff, clites, goosebill, clives, scratweed, mutton chops, everlasting friendship, robin-run-in-the-grass, bedstraw, hedgeheriff and no doubt many others.

Contary to it’s most often used common name, goosegrass is not actually a grass (by definition a monocot belonging to the grass family Poaceae) at all, but a type of low-growing, annual, herbaceous dicot. In fact this common weed is actually in the Rubiaceae (other members include madder, coffee and gardenia) family.

Goosegrass is native to parts of North America, Europe and Asia although it has naturalised and become a weed over a much larger range and now has a near global distribution.

Many of the common names of goosegrass including the names stickywilly, grip grass and catchweed all hint that this weed is rather clingy. These names have been given to this plant due to the prickly, hooked hairs that cover the leaves, fruits and stems, causing them to attach to clothing much like Velcro. These hairs can also be rather sharp and along with the sap can cause dermatitis and skin abrasions.

Mean children in Scotland play a cruel game with this plant which involves convincing the victim to allow it to be placed on their tongue after which it is rapidly removed, causing the hooks to slice up the tongue and cause it to bleed. The sharp hooks can also cause cuts to the mouths of livestock that feed upon it and it can be problematic when it infests grazing pastures. It’s also quite a vigorous grower and can out-complete other less vigorous species.

Galium aparine is an easily plant to recognise due to its distinctive features. Aside from the aforementioned hairs the stems are square in cross-section, similar to the way members of the mint family Laminaceae are. The leaves also appear to form in whorls of six lanceolate leaflets, although these whorls are actually comprised two single leaves each with two leaf-like stipules on either side of them.

Goosegrass produces small flowers in clusters from early Spring to Summer that have four petals, are star-shaped and green or whitish in colour. The flowers are followed by hairy, lobed fruits which can contain one to three seeds each. The hooked hairs help the fruit attach to the hair of passing animals and this is how they are spread.

All parts of Galium aparine are edible and although the sharp hooks make it not very appealing raw, cooking softens them up so that they no longer cause cuts. The bitter taste of the leaves doesn’t make this the most appealing of wild greens available, although there are reports of it being eaten regularly in poorer parts of China. The youngest shoots are the least bitter. As its common name suggests, goosegrass is a favourite food of geese who don’t seem too phased by the hairs.

As far as nutrition goes, goosegrass is rich in vitamin C and niacin (vitamin B3) as well as a number of minerals including silica and calcium.

The seeds make a reasonable coffee substitute when dried for a week, then roasted in a hot oven for 5 minutes, ground and steeped in boiling water as you would for ground coffee beans. Similarly to coffee and not surprisingly due to them both being members of the family Rubiaceae, goosegrass coffee contains caffeine although at a much lower level than real coffee beans.

The leaves can also be dried and infused into a tea. Use 1 oz (28 grams) per pint (470mL) of boiling water. The number of medicinal uses attributed to the tea of this plant is almost as long as its list of common names and it is highly valued by many herbalists.

The tea of Galium aparine is a lymphatic tonic, helping many ailments involving the lymphatic system including swollen lymph glands and tonsillitis. It also has a detoxifying effect on the bloodstream and may help with arthritis and psoriasis. Drinking the tea is also said to be relaxing and sleep promoting, and it may even have some ability to help treat the symptoms of common colds. Galium aparine is also a diuretic and consuming it can increase urination which can help to expel kidney stones.

The tea when applied to the skin externally can also be used to help the complexion, treat certain skin disorders as well as cuts, scrapes and burns. A poultice (a mash of the leaves) can also be applied externally to problem areas in a similar fashion and is said to be effective in treating insect bites and stings.

There are also a myriad of non-medicinal uses for this plant. The dried leaves have been used to stuff mattresses, the ability of the leaves to stick together and form a consistent matt means that the pilling that occurs when mattresses are filled with feather stuffing is reduced.

The roots of Galium aparine have been used to make a permanent red dye which has been used to colour cheeses. The stems of the plants can be roughly woven into a sieve for straining milk as practiced by the ancient Greeks and still in use today in parts of Sweden. Finally the crushed leaves also have the ability to curdle milk and can be used as a vegetable rennet in the making of soft cheeses.

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