One source1 describes goosegrass 'one of the least attractive members of the family Rubiaceae...'. However, ask any child and they're almost certain to disagree as, since time immemorial, they have delighted in draping swathes of it onto the clothing of an unsuspecting friend or parent.
Goosegrass (Galium aparine) is more commonly known as 'Sticky Willy' and is so named due to the fact that its leaves and seeds are covered in tiny hooks, which enables it to adhere to rough surfaces such as skin or fabrics, much like Velcro. Indeed, its species name aparine comes from the Greek word meaning 'to seize'. In deference to this, the weed has a number of other common names that refer to its stickiness, including sticky weed, cleavers, catchweed, everlasting friendship, grip grass, loveman, and sweethearts.
Habitat and Range
Galium aparine is a common hedgerow plant and also occurs as a weed of cultivated land throughout Britain, Europe, Canada and the eastern half and Pacific coast of the USA.
Goosegrass forms dense tangled mats which scramble over or climb up anything in its way, such as bushes or trees. Upon closer inspection, it is seen that the stems of individual plants can be up to 180cm in length and are square in cross-section. The leaves, which are long and narrow, are borne in whorls of between four to ten at intervals along the stem, and there may be from six to eight of these along the stem. Although it is a flowering plant, the flowers are extremely inconspicuous, consisting of small clusters of white, four-petalled flowers, produced in the axils of the leaves from June to August.
At the end of flowering goosegrass produces small, hard, spherical fruits, which are green at first before becoming more purple. These fruits occur in pairs and, like the entire rest of the plant, are covered with small hooks that cling to fur, feather and fabric. Each plant has the ability to produce some 3500 seeds. These are quite hardy and can often withstand the winter, thus enabling the plant to get a head-start on potential competitors in the springtime. The seeds are dispersed by means of these fruits becoming attached to the fur of animals and thus being transported to new locations.
Being of the Rubiacea (madder) family, Galium aparine is related to the Arabian coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Thus, the bean-shaped seeds are often dried and lightly roasted, and used as a coffee substitute. The advantage of this is that the beverage retains the taste of coffee but lacks caffeine, thus making an acceptable but healthier alternative to its more illustrious relative.
The genus name Galium is derived from gala, the Greek word for milk. According to Dioscorides, Greek shepherds used the stems to make a rough sieve in order to strain milk and, apparently, this practice is still continued in Sweden. The galiums also contain enzymes which facilitate the curdling of milk, and have thus been used as 'vegetable rennet'. For this reason, Galium aparine also has the common name, 'milk sweet'. According to Gerard2 (quoting from Matthiolus, a well-known commentator of Dioscorides),
...the people of Thuscane do use it to turne their milks and the cheese, which they make of sheepes and goates milke, might be the sweeter and more pleasant to taste. The people in Cheshire especially about Nantwich, where the best cheese is made, do use it in their rennet, esteeming greatly of that cheese above other made without it.
Use in Perfumery
A number of species of the genus Galium contain asperuloside, a substance that gives rise to coumarin, which releases the scent of new-mown hay/vanilla as the plant dries. One of these is Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) whose dried leaves are popular in potpourris. In Europe, the leaves are often used in some wines and summer drinks. Woodruff is also used in perfumes. Due to their sweet smell, the dried plants were often used to pack mattresses - hence the common name, 'bedstraw'. 'Our Lady's Bedstraw', also known as Yellow Bedstraw (Galium verum) derives its name from the legend that it was one of the 'Cradle Herbs,' i.e. was in the hay in Christ's manger at Bethlehem.
Goosegrass is one of any number of plants which, since ancient times, have been considered to have diuretic properties (see also 'Herbs in History'). Tinctures of goosegrass (containing just enough alcohol to prevent microbial growth) and tisane have therefore used to relieve oedema and to promote urine formation during bladder infections. It has also been used by people with lymph gland swellings, jaundice, and wounds.
The pharmacologically active constituents of goosegrass include the red dye, galiosin (an anthraquinone glycoside) which has specific anti-inflammatory and spasmolytic effects on the urinary tract. There are also other glycosides, tannins (which have astringent3 properties), and flavonoids.
Coumarins are structurally related to vitamin K and hence act as indirect anticoagulants by blocking vitamin K in the 'clotting cascade'.
Asperuloside itself is a mild laxative, but can also be converted into prostaglandins4, making the genus of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry.
Preparation of goosegrass tincture and tisane
For medicinal uses, the plant must be gathered when it is just about to flower in late spring.
Herbal practitioners recommend taking 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (ie, 3-5 ml) of tincture, three times per day.
Tea is prepared by steeping 2–3 teaspoons (10-15g) of the herb in one cup (250ml) of hot water for ten to fifteen minutes. Individuals can safely consume three or more cups per day; there are no known side effects and the preparation is considered to be safe for use by children and pregnant or nursing women.
Preparation of dyes
The red dye galiosin is similar to the dye in Galium's relative, Rubia tinctorum (madder). This dye was once used to produce the scarlet tunics of British soldiers; and it was also one of the dyes which were once used to give cheeses such as those from Cheshire and Gloucestershire their rich orange colours (other colourings that were used were carrot and beetroot, although nowadays annatto is used).