Another Life: Sometimes stickyback is just the weed we need

Stickyback, aka cleavers, goosegrass and Robin-run-the-hedge, is a veteran of herbal medicine, and was even used by herdsmen to filter animal hairs out of milk

Taking its time: a linnet digs into thistles’ silky fluff. Illustration: Michael Viney

Taking its time: a linnet digs into thistles’ silky fluff. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 01:00

A sheep-shorn hillside is no land for dockens, yet here is this splendid specimen at the turn of the boreen, a metre-high spire of coppery seeds, just waiting for a high wind or a visitation of linnets. But these little finches can take their time this autumn. They’re still busy at the thistles farther up the road, so deeply dug into the silky fluff that they don’t hear me coming: a little explosion of wings as I pass. All the finches should fatten up well on this year’s exceptional output of seeds.

The birds will not, unfortunately, give any priority to my own abundance of cleavers, the weed with seeds that hook on to anything passing – dogs, toddlers, socks and trousers, woolly sheep. This gift of adherence prompts a good many of the 80-odd folk names for Galium aparine: Ireland’s “stickyback”, for example (if not the “sticky Willy” known elsewhere). Ulster’s “Robin-run-the-hedge” has, by contrast, a ring of Presbyterian whimsy, and the common “goosegrass” hangs on because poultry used to gobble it.

Paired seeds
Merely swallowed rather than chewed, the paired seeds of cleavers, like tiny, furry testicles, are apt to pass straight through and start again, their germination extending even to stony shores of lakes in Fermanagh and banks of the Shannon. Along with a bit of bare ground to get going, what they prefer is a soil that is mildly acidic and damp, like mine.

Clearing the cleavers before the seeds ripen, as I have been bent on doing (and bent in doing) is rather like hauling in a fishing net, as the stems, often three metres long, gather up others as they come: one keeps pulling slowly, hand over hand. This can surprise and satisfy – as I drag a fan-shaped canopy off a fair slice of flower bed or half our prostrate yew. But it is only mildly effective, as the stems will have snapped off at the bottom, leaving the roots intact.

Like cleavers’ other sly habit of breaking at its starry whorls of leaves, this snap release is, says the ecologist John Feehan, “an evolutionary stratagem honed through millennia of combat with human hands”. In his engrossing The Wildflowers of County Offaly (2009) he describes in rapt and minute detail the mechanics of the stem snap (a behaviour not found in other bedstraws) and the armoury of Velcro-like hooks and barbs by which it hoists itself up over other plants and mounts its “sticky” seeds for onward distribution.

“Its ability to take advantage of us,” writes Feehan, “and so successfully to counter our efforts to curtail its advance, rather blinds us to the marvellous plant that it is.” And that comes from a man who has seen it locking its strands together to “overcome” young oak trees he planted at his home in Birr.

The idea that cleavers has some defiant mission where humans are concerned is encouraged by its resistance to most herbicides – Teagasc gives farmers a whole list of chemicals that don’t kill it. The plant’s capacity for smothering others in competition for light makes it a special problem for cereal farming, overtopping and dragging down winter wheat and reducing yield far more than any other common cornfield weed.

Indeed, in moving from hedges and headlands to the heart of cereal fields, Galium aparine appears to have evolved new habits in germinating its seeds, just to spoil the advantages of sowing wheat in autumn. With an average of 300-400 seeds per plant and sometimes more than 1,000, it starts sprouting them into seedlings soon after the wheat has been drilled, along with another flush in spring. This gives it a head start over most other weeds.

Cleaning milk
But cleavers has a long history of usefulness to people. Its formal name in Irish, garbhlus (rough weed), is dismissive enough, but another, sop an tséaláin (gathered by Niall Mac Coitir for his book Irish Wild Plants) is nicely inclusive, suggesting both the ropy handfuls of harvesting and the “wispy strainer” of Mac Coitir’s translation. Herdsmen from ancient Greece onwards used bundles of cleavers for filtering animal hairs out of milk.

The plant is also a veteran of herbal medicine, from Dioscorides onwards. Mac Coitir lists local cures for burns, bowels and bellyache; Mrs Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, from 1931, cites uses for scurvy, scrofula and psoriasis, and more recent herbals call on its diuretic properties (“powerful”, warns Mrs Grieve) for the dissolution of gallstones.

For beneficial purposes you might not even have considered, try irishapothecary.com/wild-harvested-cleavers. If suitably intrigued, and lacking cleavers in your garden, you can buy a “cleavers protective knot bound with hand spun red cord” for €5. The herb will have been “gathered at the waxing moon to give weight and increase to its qualities”; “hung over the doorway of a home it invokes a loving atmosphere around all those that pass under it”.

Must try that.

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