Cleavers or Goosegrass - Galium aparine
Cleavers is one of the least attractive members of the family Rubiaceae which contains such favourites as Lady's bedstraw and Sweet Woodruff. Like its more showy cousins, cleavers has whorls of leaves (technically alternating leaves and stipules) on four-angled stems which, in its case, are so weak that if no support is available it simply sprawls over the ground. Both leaves and stems are, however, well furnished with backwardly pointing spines which give the plant a rough feel and which assist it to scramble over surrounding plants or even climb vertical fences such as that round the dog run on the Down. It will cleave to your clothes if you brush against it - hence both its common names and its specific epithet (from the Greek apero - to seize). Small clusters of white, four-petalled flowers are produced in the axils of the leaves from June to August, but these are so inconspicuous that they are often overlooked.
By the time you read this, flowering will be over but the small, hard fruits (which, dried and roasted, have been used as a substitute for coffee) may still be found on the withered stems. Covered with small hooks, they achieve dispersal by fastening themselves onto the coats of animals or the clothing of humans. It is this tendency to cling to one which gave them the name by which I knew them as a child - "sweethearts"!
Added to its unprepossessing appearance is its unsavoury reputation as one of the worst weeds of arable agriculture - difficult to control with herbicides and so competitive that one plant per square metre will cause a 2% reduction in the yield of a cereal crop. As its alternative name of "goosegrass" implies, however, it did have its uses in traditional agriculture. Geese love it, and the chopped herb used to be fed to young goslings. Curiously, it is said that if birds eat the root (which will dye red), it will stain their bones.
In herbal medicine, cleavers is one of the many plants which are said to 'purify the blood'. It has been recommended for, amongst other things, piles and bladder stones and a decoction of the plant applied externally is said to be effective against freckles and sunburn. If you are fighting middle-age spread as well as freckles, Gerard, quoting Pliny, says that "A pottage made of cleavers, a little mutton and oatmeal is good to cause lankiness and keepe from fatness". A tea made by infusing 1oz of the dried plant in 1pt of water is reputed to induce a quiet, restful sleep - but take too much of it and your sleep is likely to be disturbed as it is a strong diuretic!
One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.
Photo by Jill Butler