Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, I have been rather dependent on ‘domesticated’ plants for the past few weeks, so this time I was determined to hunt out something that was truly ‘wild’. One of my favourite hunting grounds is a tiny bed on the corner of Park Hall Road in East Finchley, which always seems to throw up some delights, be it lucerne or cleavers or today’s delight, hedge bedstraw (Galium album). Hedge bedstraw is closely related to cleavers, but the stems are smooth and, if you look closely at the leaves, you will see that they have a tiny point on the tip. Plus, the four-petalled snowy-white flowers pop out like fireworks from the long stems. This is not an uncommon plant, but it is the first time that I have noticed it growing in an urban environment.
Hedge bedstraw is native to the UK, and to great swathes of Europe and North Africa. It is naturalised in Scandinavia (it’s treated as an invasive weed in Finland), in southern Australia, in Ireland and in Greenland, of all places. Like many bedstraws, it is a plant of meadows, and was probably imported with animal feed. You would think that its delicate habit make it an unlikely thug, but it hybridises easily with local bedstraws, making it something of a problem where the local plant is already scarce.
Incidentally, in North America (where the plant has also been introduced), hedge bedstraw is Galium mollugo. Galium album is called white bedstraw. Confusion reigns, especially as the two plants are practically identical.
All of the bedstraw family got their name from their use as a stuffing for mattresses – they have little odour when fresh, but are said to smell like new-mown hay when dried. Woodruff (Galium odoratum) and lady’s bedstraw (Galium vernum) were the plants of choice, but I imagine that all the bedstraws were used in this way if they were found. The word was first found in written English in Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, a rollicking tale of bad behaviour. I actually wrote ‘bed behaviour’ first, which goes to show how my mind works. I always loved Chaucer, and if you want to see some more of the words that he wrote down first, there’s an extensive list here.
I hadn’t thought that there was much hope of hedge bedstraw being useful as a culinary ingredient, but over at my favourite foraging site, ‘Eat The Weeds’, there’s a recipe for Cream of Hedge Bedstraw Soup.
Incidentally, the roots of bedstraws are said to produce some very interesting dyes, as in this post by Jenny Dean.
and the rather elegant Barred Straw (Eulithis pyraliata)
And so, we come to the poem. I have been thinking a lot in these past days of what we owe to those who went before us, the nameless great-great-grandmothers who have faded like the photographs that we never had. I love this work, by Ruth Stone, who died in 2011 aged 96. I hope you enjoy it too. It speaks to me of wisdom hard won, and easily lost.
Names, by Ruth Stone.
My grandmother’s name was Nora Swan.
Old Aden Swan was her father. But who was her mother?
I don’t know my great-grandmother’s name.
I don’t know how many children she bore.
Like rings of a tree the years of woman’s fertility.
Who were my great-aunt Swans?
For every year a child; diphtheria, dropsy, typhoid.
Who can bother naming all those women churning butter,
leaning on scrub boards, holding to iron bedposts,
sweating in labor?
My grandmother knew the names of all the plants on the mountain.
Those were the names she spoke of to me. Sorrel, lamb’s ear,
spleenwort, heal-all;never go hungry, she said, when you can
gather a pot of greens.
She had a finely drawn head under a smooth cap of hair
pulled back to a bun. Her deep-set eyes were quick to notice
in love and anger.
Who are the women who nurtured her for me?
Who handed her in swaddling flannel to my great-grandmother’s
Who are the women who brought my great-grandmother tea
and straightened her bed? As anemone in midsummer, the air
cannot find them and grandmother’s been at rest for forty years.
In me are all the names I can remember-pennyroyal, boneset,
bedstraw, toadflax-from whom I did descend in perpetuity.
Photo One (Common Carpet) by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=284893
Photo Two (Barred Straw) by By IKAl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10844141