Bedstraw is an interesting and clingy winter weed


Have you ever entered an otherwise empty field in late winter or early spring and left with uninvited sticky stems clinging to your clothes? They are bedstraws and often find you before you find them. They find your pets too. Bedstraws (Galium sp.) are often plentiful in your gardens.

Most Bedstraws are what we call winter annual weeds. They thrive in cool weather and can grow any time temperatures are above freezing. A few species of bedstraw are true perennials. Bedstraws can grow in nearly all types of soils, pH ranges and light levels. They prefer moist soils.

Creeping stems have tiny hairs with hooked ends on them. They act just like Velcro. Foliage radiates from the stems in whorls and has these hair-like structures too. I show this plant to my students by throwing it at their clothing. They’re fascinated by how it clings but leaves no residue.

In a couple months sometimes yellow but usually white flowers give way to two-lobed fruits a little smaller than garden peas. These fruits have sticky hairs too. They can be dried, roasted and used as a coffee substitute. I admit I have never done this yet.

Flower color varies because there are numerous species of bedstraw and several inhabit this area.  Many are edible. Young leaves and stems can be eaten fresh or gently cooked. Flowers make a delicate herbal tea.

One of the more common species in this area is the stiff marsh bedstraw (Galium tinctorium). It is a perennial and not considered edible. It’s not listed as poisonous either. Roots yield a red dye that is effective on many materials.

Another common use for bedstraw stems is as a straining filter for fresh milk. Old-time farmers collected gobs and poured the milking bucket over their makeshift sieve into a different container. Hairs and other debris got snagged by the foliage and were removed from the final product.

Many species of bedstraw have been used medicinally for centuries. Plant extracts are strongly diuretic. Herbalists have used them to treat skin disorders such as psoriasis, seborrhea and eczema. The problem is that plant juices can also be a skin irritant to some. Always test a small area with mild dosages to determine sensitivity.

In addition to numerous other chemicals, bedstraw contains a substance called coumarin. It is a precursor to warfarin, a common blood thinning drug. Too much bedstraw, particularly a species called fragrant bedstraw (Galium triflorum), especially high in this anticoagulant, could be a problem for some people.

Once weather warms a little, this plant will go into overdrive. When plants mature they quickly die back, but not before leaving their seeds behind for next winter. Individual plants produce a few hundred seeds. If you want this winter weed removed from your premises you can hand weed them before they go to seed. This can be effective for small areas.

On larger tracts numerous broadleaf herbicides will control bedstraw. However, in cold weather they are far less effective, since they aren’t taken up by the plants very efficiently. Fortunately, desirable plants are affected less also.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

 

Tick trefoil growing under a bench at school in January

Bedstraw growing under a bench at school in January

 

Close-up of tick trefoil stem showing whorled leaves

Close-up of bedstraw stem showing whorled leaves. Rough stem surface is barely visible.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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