Dear Readers, this lovely plant has been flowering among the spear thistles and greater knapweed alongside Muswell Hill Playing Fields. It is such a discreet little thing that you could easily overlook it, but it has a long history of use by human beings. Lady’s Bedstraw is honey-scented when fresh, but smells of new-mown hay when dried, and this is one reason that it was used in straw mattresses. It was also believed to deter fleas, which must have been an additional bonus in medieval times, and until recently it was believed that the plant, dried between sheets of newspaper, could deter clothes moths.In Scandinavia, the plant was used as a sedative and analgesic for women in childbirth: the Norse goddess who helped women in labour was Frigg, and so the plant is known as ‘Frigg’s grass’.
The plant’s sedative qualities were also recognised in Gaelic mythology: a tea made from Lady’s Bedstraw was said to calm the terrifying battle frenzy of the hero Cúchulainn.
In Romania, Lady’s Bedstraw is known as Sânzianā, and was originally linked to the huntress goddess Diana (who was worshipped by the ancient Dacians who originally lived in the area). Nowadays, the Sânziene have been demoted to fairies, but these are still seen as powerful, wih the ability to promote fertility and cause injury. The festival of Sânziene is held every year on June 24th (although it is now said to be the ‘Festival of John the Baptist’ this is clearly based on a pagan midsummer celebration). Lady’s Bedstraw is central to the event:
“The folk practices of Sânziene imply that the most beautiful maidens in the village dress in white and spend all day searching for and picking flowers, of which one MUST be Galium verum (Lady’s bedstraw or Yellow bedstraw) which in Romanian is also named “Sânziànă”. Using the flowers they picked during the day, the girls braid floral crowns which they wear upon returning to the village at nightfall. There they meet with their beloved and they dance around a bonfire. The crowns are thrown over the houses, and whenever the crown falls, it is said that someone will die in that house; if the crown stays on the roof of the house, then good harvest and wealth will be bestowed upon the owners. As with other bonfire celebrations, jumping over the embers … is done to purify the person and also to bring health.
Another folk belief is that during the Sânziene Eve night, the heavens open up, making it the strongest night for magic spells, especially for the love spells. Also it is said that the plants harvested during this night will have tremendous magical powers.
It is not a good thing though to be a male and walk at night during Sanziene Eve night, as that is the time when the fairies dance in the air, blessing the crops and bestowing health on people – they do not like to be seen by males, and whomever sees them will be maimed, or the fairies will take their hearing/speech or make them mad.
In some areas of the Carpathians, the villagers then light a big wheel of hay from the ceremonial bonfire and push it down a hill. This has been interpreted as a symbol for the setting sun (from the solstice to come and until the midwinter solstice, the days will be getting shorter).” (From Wikipedia)
Botanically, Lady’s Bedstraw belongs to the Rubiaceae family, and is closely related to hedge bedstraw and cleavers . The frothy yellow flowers are pretty much diagnostic for the species (hedge bedstraw flowers are white). It is found right across Europe and Asia, and is native to North Africa too. It has been naturalised in the northern part of North America, New Zealand and Tasmania.
The plant can be used to make vegetable rennet, for coagulating milk during cheese-making, and it used to give its colour to Double Gloucester cheese. Double Gloucester was a very regional product, made only from the milk of the Gloucester cow. Nowadays, while a few artisan cheese-makers and small farms are making the cheese the traditional way, most of the stuff that you buy in supermarkets is made by large dairies and coloured artificially to give the golden hue. Fortunately, the Gloucester cow has been rescued from extinction, and Single Gloucester cheese can only be made from the milk of this breed, which has a characteristic white stripe along the backbone.
As you might expect from a plant that is in the same family as Rose Madder, the roots of Lady’s Bedstraw can be used to produce a dye, which produces a range of colours from palest pink through to coral. The extraction and cleaning of the fine roots seems to be quite a palaver however, and I note that many dyers turn their attentions to the commoner hedge bedstraw instead. The photo below shows the experiments of a dyer from Connecticut, and very pretty they are too. The flowers of the plant can apparently be used to produce a yellow dye, but I suspect you’d need a lot of them.
Lady’s Bedstraw doesn’t seem to be much eaten by humans (except for the cheese connection) but it is much loved by a variety of caterpillars, including those of the appropriately-named Bedstraw Hawk Moth (Hyles gallii). What a splendid creature! They also feed on Rosebay Willow-herb, so I shall have to keep an eye open.
According to my caterpillar book, 19 species of moth caterpillar have been found on Lady’s Bedstraw. This delicate little plant certainly pulls its weight on the biodiversity front, and it should feature in any wildflower meadow.
And finally, a poem. How I love this! I can see it all. I did not know that Frances Cornford(1886 – 1960) was chiefly known for her unkind and much parodied poem ‘To a Fat Lady Seen From a Train’ (‘Oh fat white woman whom nobody loves/Why do you walk through the fields in gloves?). This humane poem, however, seems to me a much better way to remember her.
The Coast: Norfolk
by Frances Cornford
As on the highway’s quiet edge
He mows the grass beside the hedge,
The old man has for company
The distant, grey, salt-smelling sea,
A poppied field, a cow and calf,
The finches on the telegraph.
Across his faded back a hone,
He slowly, slowly scythes alone
In silence of the wind-soft air,
With ladies’ bedstraw everywhere,
With whitened corn, and tarry poles,
And far-off gulls like risen souls.
And before we leave Frances, I note that one of her poems was much loved by Philip Larkin and his lover Maeve Brennan, who would read ‘All Souls Night’ every year after Larkin had died.
All Souls’ Night
My love came back to me
Under the November tree
Shelterless and dim.
He put his hand upon my shoulder,
He did not think me strange or older,
Nor I, him.
Photo One By Saturnian – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26838120
Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=129770
Photo Three by Graham Tiller from https://www.flickr.com/photos/77175657@N00/7007115394/
Photo Five By Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11242384
Photo Six By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20863851