Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Synonyms: Goosegrass. Barweed. Hedgeheriff. Hayriffe. Eriffe. Grip Grass. Hayruff. Catchweed. Scratweed. Mutton Chops. Robin-run-in-the-Grass. Loveman. Goosebill. Everlasting Friendship.
(A Modern Herbal. Maude Grieve)
An insistent rattle echoes across the green, between the moat and the physic garden; a woodpecker, battering the bark of an old oak bordering the moat.
The garden is growing again after the winter months; Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is emerging, and needs thinning, to stop it dominating ground shared with Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum); Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is growing vigorously; Elecampane (Inula helenium) shoots disturb the soil; and Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is already colonising part of the wood chip path laid around the perimeter of the garden.
We’ve been transplanting herbs, and weeding; Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), and Cleavers (Galium aparine), considered invasive weeds, as are most of the plants in this garden. Small, bounded by a yew hedge and an old stone wall, limited space encourages the need to be selective, to exclude the more vigorous plants, including Cleavers, because of its extremely unruly habit. It can be a troublesome plant, clinging to clothing, but playful too. It’s very familiarity prompted Edward Step to include aparine in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1930), and for another reason: The rambling botanist, when playfully inclined, detaches a yard-length from the hedge, and deftly throwing it against his unconscious companions back, causes a hundred hooks to catch in the warp or weft of his coat.
Following Cleavers’ spreading habit is fascinating; it’s specific name aparine, is derived from the Greek aparo, to seize, a characteristic Theophrastus observed in the 2nd century BCE. Pliny the Elder, and Dioscorides, both writing in the 1st century CE mention this characteristic, as well as its medicinal value; Pliny specifies the seed, to neutralize the venom of serpents, being taken in doses of one drachma, in wine: it is useful also for the bite of the phalangium; Dioscorides recommends the whole plant, seed, stalks and leaves […] juiced (taken as a drink with wine) to help those bitten by harvest spiders and snakes; both recommend drops of the juice to cure earache. Dioscorides also prescribes the pounded herb, mixed with swines’ grease, as a remedy for scrofulous tumors. Pliny mentions: The leaves, applied topically, arrest haemorrhage from wounds. Contemporaries, but with no evidence to suggest they met or corresponded, it seems possible that, in their separate commentaries, they were drawing on common knowledge, as well as observation.
Continuity and change; knowledge travels, manuscripts are annotated, translated, commentaries written. The printed English Herbals, from the 16th century onwards, rely heavily on these classical authors, while registering changes and developments too, in a broader European context. Eleanor Rohde suggests that English herbalists owed a great deal to Europe, particularly the herbalists of the Netherlands, Rembert Dodeons amongst them; but knowledge is shared. William Turner, in The Names of Herbes (1548), includes Cleavers ability to, scoureth away and dryeth, perhaps a reference to what had become its general use in treating skin diseases. Something Rembert Dodeons acknowledges, in A Newe Herball, or, Historie of plants, translated from the French by Henrie Lyte (1586), when, in the entry for Cleavers, he quotes William Turner (1551): pound with hogges grease, it dissolveth and consumeth the disease of the knecke, called the Kinges evil, and all hard kernels and wennes wheresoever they be, if it be layed thereto, as Turner writes.
Gerard, in his Herball (1636), simply quotes from the classical authors, adding to the herbs vertues what may be a folk remedy: Women do usually make pottage of Clevers with a little mutton and Otemeal, to cause lanknesse and keep them from fatnesse.
William Coles, writing in the 17th century repeats the standard medicinal uses of Cleavers, adding; A handful of Cleavers boiled in a quart of Ale, with a little paired liquorice, and some currants to the one halfe, and then strained, may be successfully drunk morning and evening for the cough, and removing phlegm from the stomack. He also writes of its common use as a ‘spring drink’, fitting the body for the season that followes, by purging away those excrementitious dregs, which winter hath bred in them.
Benjamin Barton and Thomas Castle, writing in the 19th century, refer to its use, among country people for scorbutic complaints. In the preface to The British Flora Medica (1845), they state their intention: to furnish an accurate description of all the medicinal plants indigenous to Britain [and] the estimation in which they were held by the greatest and most skilful of the old physicians. For this they claim a degree of originality, as far as the term will apply to publications whose chief value consists […] in affording a record of the experience of the past (their emphasis).
Older knowledge informing current use; with Cleavers it was its value as an external application in the treatment of cancer; the herb’s cleansing capabilities, already noted by William Turner, to scoureth away and dryeth, accompanied by internal treatment, either the juice, or a decoction of the herb for which they provide a recipe.
Aparine has a place in current herbal practice, it’s healing properties still very much valued; but it will remain outside this herb garden, or at least that’s the idea. Look again, that patch of ground we’ve weeded, leave it a few days and no doubt the Goosegrass will emerge, and left to its own devices, will be weaving its way across the beds, covering, enveloping, clinging; an invitation to play.