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.
A cold day, and with rain a distinct possibility. We’ve finished the hurdles, separating planting areas in the physic garden; we’ve been weeding, transplanting, generally tidying. In this late winter light, the Stinking Hellebore are luminous; violets are flowering, the wild strawberry is just beginning to put out flowers.
Delicate, unassuming, a source of food and medicine, and an ancient plant. There is archaeobotanical evidence for the consumption of wild strawberry in the Mesolithic period (about 10,000 to 5000 BCE). Evidence too, from the Anglo Saxon period, whether wild, or cultivated in gardens and orchards […] the Saxons utilised a considerable range of fruit, including the strawberry. Faecal material from a dig in Beverley, Yorkshire, produced, walnut, hazel (Corylis Avellana), plum, strawberry (Fragaria vesca), as well as a range of other fruit.
Stephen Pollington argues that, for the Anglo Saxons, dependent on an intimate knowledge of their environment, requirements of specific activities such as dyeing, thatching, […] baking, tanning and so on, would have encouraged the development of cultivated plots. An essential part of that knowledge would be the medicinal uses of plants. Medical texts form a substantial part of what survives of the vernacular writing from this period; glossed remedies, short treatises, and four long works, three of which are unique manuscripts. Translated into modern English, in three volumes, by the Rev. Thomas Oswald Cockayne, in the nineteenth century, one of these books, The Leechbook of Bald includes this prescription for an eye salve:
Thus shall a man work an eye salve, take the nether part of strawberry plants and pepper, pound them well, put them on a cloth, bind them fast, lay them in sweetened wine, make somebody drop one drop into the eyes.
Medicinal value of strawberry
This wort which is named fraga (fragaria) and by another name strawberry, is produced in secret places and in clean ones, and also on downs.
For sore milt (spleen), take the juice of the same wort, which we named fragaria, honey; give to drink; it benefits wonderfully.
Juice of the same wort, mingled with honey, along with pepper benefits much when drunk, for oppression of the chest and sore inwards.
In the preface to the first volume, Cockayne indicates that these medical texts were intended for trained physicians, the frequent expression, “as the leech knows how,” shows that they received professional education.
Eleanor Rhode suggests this rich medical knowledge was abandoned after the Norman Conquest, but perhaps the reality was more complex, as society adjusted to the cultural shifts that took place from the eleventh century onwards. The Rev. John Earle, in English Plant Names from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century (1880), states that, early botany is inseparable from medicine […] rested mainly upon a knowledge of Herbs […]. This priority of herbal medicines has left its trace in the vocabulary of our language.
And the wild strawberry continued to flourish; at least as early as the fourteenth century wild plants were collected, and brought into gardens for cultivation. Strawberries were being sold; The London Lackpenny dating from the early fifteenth century, and attributed to John Lidgate, includes these lines;
Then unto London I dyde me hye,
Of all the land it bearyeth the pryse;
‘Gode pescode,’ one began to cry —
‘Strabery rype’, and ‘cherrys in the ryse’.
Gerard’s Herball informs this garden; in the choice of plants, and the descriptions of their medicinal uses. But an earlier, and perhaps more interesting figure, is William Turner. His major work, A New Herball (1551) is considered to mark the beginnings of the serious study of botany in England, post Conquest.
In an earlier, slimmer volume, The Names of Herbes (1548), there is a short entry; Fragraria is called in English a Strawbery […] Every man knoweth wel inough where strawberries grow. It would seem the plant was familiar enough, to make identification of habitat unnecessary. In the preface, he states that he had intended to publish his little boke in Latin, but on the advice of physicians delayed until, I had sene those places in Englande, wherein is most plentie of herbes, that I might in my herbal declare to the greate honoure of our countre what number of sovereine and strang herbes were in Englande. […] and because men should not thynke that I writue of it that I never saw. He published in English, not Latin as originally intended. Answering criticisms for writing in English, he asks, in A Newe Herball; How many surgianes and apothecaries are there in England which can understand Plini in Latin or Galen and Dioscoridies? saying that anyway, they rely on the old wives who gather herbs; on old and local knowledge. And a herbal, written in English, will benefit everyone concerned with medicine; is for the comon profit. His Protestantism shines through; his reasoning resonating with the production of the Old English manuscripts, begun under Alfred’s programme of translation, to make significant texts accessible in the vernacular.
Turner studied plants in their locality, writing from careful observation; proper identification being essential to the physicians and apothecaries who would use his herbal, and in this he echoed the desire to inform that characterises the Anglo Saxon Leech Books.
In A Newe Herball, under his entry for strawberry, he notes the rough stalk, and in the toppe of it grow whyte floures; the berries turning from green to red; the leaf indented, and always thre of them grow together,
[and some of] The Vertues of Strawberries.
Strawberies leaves taken in meate, helpeth thê that are diseased in the milt, and so doth also the juice dronke wyth hony. The same is good to be geven wyth peper for them that are short winded. Strawberryes quenche thirst, and are good for a cholerike stomack.
There are striking similarities between the medicinal use of strawberries in Turner’s Herball, written in the sixteenth century and their medicinal value in the Herbarium, dating to the tenth century.
And then there was a break in the clouds, a brief scattering of sunshine, before they closed again, the sky darkened and it started to rain, heavily.
Alexanders: The Smyrnium olus-atrum is wild throughout Southern Europe, in Algeria, Syria, and Asia Minor.
Origin of Cultivated Plants, Alphonse De Candolle. 1908
Winter work continues in the physic garden; cutting back and clearing, beginning to replant where necessary, and starting to weed again. The Alexanders (Smyrnium alusatrum) are beginning to emerge, both where we want them, and where we don’t, a large patch appearing in the wood chip path we’ve laid. A vigorous plant, it was introduced to Britain by the Romans, thrived and became naturalised. Of all the Umbellifers used as vegetables, this was one of the commonest in gardens for nearly fifteen centuries, and it is now abandoned. (De Candolle, 1908: 91)
Alexanders medicinal, and culinary use, has a long history. Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC) was aware of, and wrote about it’s medicinal value. Pliny the Elder (c. AD 23 – AD 79) notes that, among other remedies, Olustrum, usually known as hipposelinum, is particularly repulsive to scorpions. The seed of it taken in drink, is a cure for griping of the stomach and intestinal complaints, and a decoction of the seed drunk in honied wine, is a curative in cases of dysuria (painful urination).
Columella, (1st. century AD), in his treatise on agriculture states that, Alisander […] ought to be sown in seed, in a place that is well trenched, especially hard by a wall; because it rejoices in a shade, and thrives and grows strong in any place, how indifferent so ever: and when you have once sown it, if you do not pull it all up by the roots, but leave, and set apart, stalks of here-and-there for seed, it will last an age. He also gives detailed instructions for preserving and pickling the root.
Gerard notes both the medicinal and culinary uses of Alexanders. He quotes Dioscorides who, saith that the leaves and stalks are boiled and eaten, and dressed alone by themselves or with fishes, [ and ] in our age served to the table raw for a sallad herbe.
A common garden plant, and versatile, but its usefulness was on the wane by the 17th century, beginning to be replaced by celery, with which it shares some similarity of taste. Also of ancient origin, celery was considered a medicinal plant until the early years of the 17th century, when it’s food value became increasingly recognised, and European growers began cultivating it as a vegetable for the table, initially for the rich. Lewes Sturtevant, writing in The American Naturalist (1886) notes that, Ray in his Historia plantarum, 1686, says the smallage transferred to culture becomes milder and less ungrateful, whence in Italy and France the leaves and stalks are esteemed as delicacies, eaten with oil and pepper.
By the early 18th century celery had became more widely available; Alphonse de Candolle, commenting on the disappearance of Alexanders states that, At the end of the eighteenth century the tradition existed in England that this plant had been formerly cultivated; later English and French horticulturists do not mention it.
Cultivation techniques; plant breeding; changes in eating habits, all affect the fortunes of plants. While there are directions on the web for foraging the plant in the wild, and plenty of recipes too, Alexanders is no longer cultivated as a vegetable; the plant remains an echo of older practices and diet.