Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Cleavers: Can’t Shake It

Galium aparine takes two-fisted gardening and still won’t let go.


Cleavers (Galium aparine) in bloom

Photo: Jim Lindsey

What’s your pick for “Most Loveable Weed”? (No fair voting for smokables.)

After tangling in the yard with a number of candidates this morning, we choose cleavers (Galium aparine). Here in Central Texas, we’ve pulled out many heaping bucketsful of this little devil. When you reach for it, it reaches back. Letting go is a trick - the stems and leaves clutch your gloves and have to be scraped off somehow (shaking them free would take the torque of a plane propeller).

Arthur Lee Jackson puts it perfectly: “Unmistakable, unforgettable, it is a fascinating little pest.” So what makes it endearing?  We believe this attitude first came to us through kindly neighbor Beverley Bajema. We met her about this time of year, one day as she was weeding her own yard. “I kind of like cleavers,“ she said, tossing a sprig onto her sleeve.  ”You can wear it.”  But this weed’s not mean to wear, like those burrs one must painfully dig off socks. It’s just clingy, rather like Wally, June, Ward and the Beav.

imageMaking the acquaintance

of cleavers

in Alley Pond Park, Queens, NY

Photo: Don Wiss

Dr. Adrian Goodman clearly has a thing for cleavers and has published quite a bit of research about the plant’s virtues. “Historically it has been boiled as spinach before the two-seeded fruits appear and in Sweden the seeds are roasted, ground and used as a substitute for coffee. The green seeds were also once used to adorn the tops of lacemakers’ pins to provide a padded head.”

Dr. Goodman is enchanted with the stems’ elasticity. too. In his experiments, “the lower stem stretched by up to 24 % of its original length before breaking. This is rather unusual for a terrestrial plant.” He writes that only aquatic buttercups and “some seaweeds” are this stretchy.

And yes, cleavers do (or is that “does”?) have white flowers—nothing you’ll mistake for a hibiscus, but fair enough.

There is some possibility that cleavers was the inspiration for Velcro, the sticky brainchild of Swiss inventor and dog-walker George de Mestral. Other sources say a pricklier plant inspired Mestral to develop the fast-latch fabric.

imageGalium aparine

Drawing: via Web Jardiner

Galium aparine is surely a native of Europe (check these botanical fansites from France and from Italy, where cleavers are known as attacammani). To get an idea of how widespread the weed is in the US,  here’s a map of its territory.

We did find one Canadian source with grudges against Galium aparine. “The clinging bristles make crop handling and harvesting difficult,” it says. “The seeds are similar in size and shape to canola, making them a serious contaminant of canola and rapeseed, resulting in the downgrading of these crops.”

We’re awfully sorry to hear that. But we still are fond of cleavers.  Hope you can try lightening up on this clingy weed. We have just the thing to help: ZZ Top’s 1986 hit, shown here with a Egyptian overlay—Velcro Fly.

Posted by Julie on 02/24 at 07:30 PM
Gardening & LandscapePermalink