Teme Valley Musings, July 2020

by Stephanie Mocroft

Whilst pulling up huge amounts of yards-long streamers of goose-grass, clearly planning a takeover of my garden from behind a large shrub, I pondered whether there was enough to say about this commonplace weed to fill a whole article. Stop reading now if you think the answer should be no.

As a child, I was always amused by throwing its sticky stems at friends or family when out on a country walk and I hope that, even in the days of the smartphone, some children still do the same. Goose-grass, perhaps more correctly called cleavers, has many local names; sticky willy, herriff, gosling weed, sticky bobs and claggy meggie, to name but a few. Botanically termed Galium aparine, it is an annual member of the bedstraw family which can put on an impressive 10 feet of growth in just one season. In common with nettles and elderberries it only grows near human habitation, where phosphate from manure is available in sufficiently high concentrations in the soil.

Thin bright green leaves are arranged in whorls of 6-8 around a hollow four-sided stem and most parts, including the double fruits, are covered with backward facing prickles. These are designed to hitch onto a passing furry animal then to reach and conquer pastures new. The tiny inconspicuous flowers appear briefly between June and August and comprise four minute white petals.

The goose and gosling names came about because it was traditionally fed to geese, and they appear to like it too, but it was also once eaten by humans. In old herbals, cooked in a broth, it was said to “keep them lank and lean that are apt to grow fat”. I found a modern-day foragers’ recipe for an interesting-sounding herb and potato soup using the leaves, but I can’t recommend it as I haven’t given it a go. Neither have I roasted and ground the seeds to make a substitute for coffee, as in another recipe I found. Both the leaves and seeds are so tiny that I don’t think the time spent in picking them can be justified, but I can certainly see how they could keep you lank and lean.

A creature with a genuine taste for the seeds is the bank vole. I once spotted one of these little animals clambering gingerly up a tall stem to reach them. It was so intent on its goal that it didn’t even notice me watching quietly as it climbed. A completely different use for the seeds was discovered by Bedfordshire lace makers, who slipped them over the ends of their brass pins to make their work easier on the fingers.

The tall but rather weak growth of the plant is designed to allow it to bend against a more robust structure which it then uses as a support. It commonly grows against hedges, but I’d advise not to let it stay there, particularly if the hedge is newly planted or newly laid. As a local countryman once told us when we first moved to the Teme valley twenty-five years ago, “goose-grass can kill a hedge, can goose-grass”.

Thanks go to Pete & Viki Stevens for allowing the photo-op with their pets.