Bedstraws (Cleavers) – Galium SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Coffee Cousin of Wild Plants

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Cleavers (galium aparine) is a widely popular edible and medicinal plant, but there are over a dozen bedstraws in our neck of Ontario to confuse them with.

Bedstraws (galium spp.) include the most notable cleavers (g. aparine), which will be the star of this feature. When I mention “cleavers” in this article it’ll always be in reference to g. aparine. Cleavers status of naturalized or native to North America is a subject of contention, but the popular authority VASCAN says it’s native. Unfortunately for its fans, cleavers is rare here and absent further north. But we have many other bedstraws around cottage country, Ontario.

Various bedstraws can be found beside streams, in damp openings, on hillsides, and in sandy soils. Fragrant/three-flowered bedstraw (g. triflorum) is the most common here. It’s nearly identical-looking to cleavers. Stiff marsh/Dyer’s bedstraw (g. tinctorium) was fairly common when Haliburton Flora was compiled, but with just 1 observation lately on iNat it may be rarer now.

Fragrant AKA three-flowered bedstraw (galium triflorum)
Fragrant /three-flowered bedstraw (galium triflorum)

Rough bedstraw (g. asprellum) may be uncommon in Haliburton county, but it’s common in Algonquin Park. A rare when Haliburton Flora was compiled, marsh bedstraw (g. palustre) may have gotten a bump from rare to only uncommon. Three-petal bedstraw (g. trifidum) was uncommon and that may still be accurate.

Sweet woodruff (g. odoratum) sadly gets confused with cleavers sometimes. Both are often referred to as “bedstraw” alone. Sad because this one is not native and can be an aggressive invasive, crowding out native plants and destroying biodiversity. Fortunately, it’s not in Algonquin park, but there are patches just south of the big park.

We have plenty of rarer bedstraws. As nonnatives go, smooth or white bedstraw (g. album/mullugo) and the showier lady’s bedstraw (g. verum) are rare and have escaped into Algonquin park too.

Extremely rare around here is northern bedstraw (g. boreale), limestone swamp bedstraw (g. brevipes), and wild madder/bluntleaf bedstraw (g. obtusum). Some of these natives have no recent sightings noted on iNat.

Yellow/Torrey’s wild licorice (g. lanceolatum) and white wild licorice/licorice bedstraw (g. circaezans) are also present in our county. They’re not to be confused with what’s usually referred to as wild licorice, glycyrrhiza lepidota. These have been noted via iNat but are in neither Haliburton Flora or the Checklist of Vascular Plants of Algonquin Provincial Park.

Edible Uses of Bedstraws (Cleavers)

Cleavers (g. aparine) has nutlets that can be roasted and used as coffee. Easier, the dried plant can be use to make an oriental tasting tea or cold infusion. In Denmark, cleavers is called gul snerre and is used to infuse the Danish drink bjæsk.

The whole young cleavers and shoots can be steamed or cooked. Some species or older leaves are furry and irritating, and the barbs that make them cleave may be unpleasant as well. FYI Before we had the cabbage soup diet, we had the cleavers diet as a fad.

Bedstraws are related to coffee. I’m not sure how may of the species have nutlets that are suitable to be dried, roasted until dark and used for a caffeine free coffee substitute. Cleavers is the most recommended for this. However, all gallium can be used to make tea.

Rich in Vitamin C.

Medicinal Uses of Bedstraws (Cleavers)

Cleavers is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Lymphatic
  • Urinary

Medicinal tags include Alterative, Astringent and Diuretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes cleavers (g. aparine), besides being used for some skin issues and lymphatic support, as one of the go-to herbs for soothing urinary issues like chronic mild UTIs. It’s often combined with the likes of broom, uva ursi, buchu and marshmallow. Urinary tract infections of course call for professional medical attention as they can have serious complications.

Other bedstraws have different medicinal uses, but are more obscure in herbalism. G. triflorum is one that may contain substances that lower blood pressure. G. boreale is diuretic. G. tintorium has respiratory usage being antispasmodic and expectorant. G. trifidum for some skin issues..

Alternative Uses of Burweed

Lady’s bedstraw (g. verum)

You can get a red dye from the root of g. aparine, g. tinctorium, g. boreale, g. verum and likely others in this family. Some bedstraws have roots which make a purple dye. Yellow dye can be obtained from Lady’s bedstraw (g. verum) leaves and stems.

The “lady” species pictured to the left was a popular bedstraw because the clingy dried foliage makes a vanilla scented stuffing for pillows and mattresses. This scent has also been used as a perfume. As usual that vanilla scent comes from coumarin, which is present in plants like cherry/prunus, mullein, sweet clover, and perhaps most famously sweetgrass. Coumarin is also used to repel mosquitoes and fleas.

Lady’s flowers coagulate milk in cheesemaking. And its used to dye the British cheese “double Gloucester”. G. tinctorium coagulates milk too.

The barbed stems of some cleavers can be made into a rough sieve for straining.

Growing Galium SPP.

You can spot the difference between native and non native Galium at Sadly, there’s a lot of confusion amidst the names bedstraw, cleavers and woodruff. Unfortunately, the nonnative and aggressive “sweet woodruff” may be the most common species you’ll find for sale. It’s up there with trendy cottage favourites like periwinkle, goutweed and the like which all wipe out beneficial native plants by taking over entire wood lots. Not planting, or if it’s too late for that, eradicating these plants and replacing with natives here like asters, Canada anemone, wild ginger and others will make a positive difference bringing back biodiversity. Finding a true native bedstraw is possible, but requires precision and even the labels can be wrong. The popular aforementioned database to check on the status of a plant in Canada is the Database of Vascular Plants of Canada (VASCAN). It’s a good one to access while plant shopping.

All this talk of natives, invasive, etc., I know can be really frustrating and often people starting out can feel like it’s a one step forward, two steps back challenge. But hang in there! I am sure planting native is the most effective goal we as individuals can take on to protect biodiversity and benefit the natural world.

Some of these diverse creatures are moths. Bedstraws have at least one namesake moth, gallium sphinx aka bedstraw hawkmoth (hyles gallii). Some other moths frequent bedstraws, including but not limited to virgin tiger moths (grammia virgo) and certain carpet and wave moths. And that’s just for starts.


Use in moderation.

The juice may irritate sensitive skin.

Avoid if you have diabetes, kidney problems, or poor circulation.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

#ads in References

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Stalking the Healthful Herbs (Field Guide Edition)

The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual

The Herbal Apothecary: 100 Medicinal Herbs and How to Use Them

The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

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