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
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.
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.