Goosegrass, Cleavers, Bedstraw


Galium gallops in and out of season. Photo by Green Deane.

Galium gallops in and out of season. Photo by Green Deane.

You don’t find Goosegrass. It finds you.

Goosegrass, Galium aspirine

Covered with a multitude of small hooks, Goosegrass, Galium aparine (GAY-lee-um ap-ar-EYE-nee) clings onto almost everything it touches. In fact, it clings so well you don’t have to take a bag with you to collect it. I usually just grab a bunch and touch it to my back pack. Instant stick. Indeed, the real headache with Goosegrass (aka Cleavers, Bedstraw, Stickywilly) is cleaning it of debris. It hates to let go of anything (which means a ball of it makes a good sieve.)

Young tips raw or boiled 10 to 15 minutes make an excellent green and the seeds roasted are one of perhaps two plants that actually makes a coffee-tasting coffee substitute (without caffeine.) Galium is in the same greater family as coffee. Older plants become laced with silicon and are too tough to eat, though I wonder if they would yield a lubricant of sorts.

Goosegrass is so called because geese love it along with most farm fowl and livestock. It is not, however, welcomed everywhere. Its seed are prohibited or restricted in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont.  Kentucky calls it a threatening weed. The Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan list it as a noxious weed. Why not just call it lunch? There are no noxious weeds in countries that are starving.

Botanically Galium aparine means” milk seizer.” Juice from another member of the genus, Gallium verum, was used to curdle milk for cheese making.  Galium comes from the Greek word  γάλα  (GAH-la)  meaning milk. Aparine is from the  Greek verb  απράζω (ap-RAH-zoh) meaning to seize. Greek shepherds would use Goosegrass as a strainer for milk and other things. As a strainer you can bunch it up or make crosshatched layers.

Other colloquial names include: Clivers, Barweed, Hedgeheriff, Hayriffe, Eriffe, Grip Grass, Hayruff, Catchweed, Scratweed, Mutton Chops, Robin-run-in-the-Grass, Loveman, Tongue Bleed, Goosebill, and Everlasting Friendship.  The ancient Greeks called it philanthropon, “man loving”  from its clinging nature. It’s a fun plant to introduce to kids because it sticks to their clothes.

Goosegrass’ whorled leaves

Actually four Galiums are used somewhat regularly. Besides curdling milk the Galium verum’s blossoms were used for coloring and scenting cheese and butter with a honey-like fragrance. The flower tops are also used to make a refreshing drink. Galium mollugo, White Bedstraw, Revala, is one of 56 leaves added to a ritual dish in Friuli, Italy, and is now naturalized in the eastern US, the northwest but not the Deep South.  Galium odoratum is used for flavoring fruit cups and German Maywine. It is found in a hodge-podge of places in North America, part of the eastern US and Great Lakes area, part of the northwest, and Colorado. Check a USDA map for your area. The dried leaves are a tea substitute and the flowers are eaten or used as a garnish. Also listed has having edible leaves are: Galium boreale, Galium gracile, Galium spurium, and Galium triflorum. There’s also about a dozen endangered species, most of them in California. So, carefully identify your local Galium.

As one might guess the genus has been used for medicinal purposes. Dried Galium verum has some coumarin in it and has been used to treat bladder and kidney problems including stones as well as dropsy and fever. It also has citric acid (which makes it refreshing as a drink) and that might have anti-tumor activity. Some think it lowers blood pressure and is anti-inflammatory. It can also prevent scurvy. Native Americans used Galium pilosum to prevent pregnancy.  Goosegrass also strengthens your immune system and is good for you lymph system.

Galium triflorum and Galium uniflorum were used for the flu and as a diuretic.  The Cherokee used Galium circazans for coughs, hoarseness, and asthma. For respiratory problems the Ojibwa used Galium tinctorium. Galium triflorum was the most used medicinally. They used it as in infusion for gallstones and a poultice to reduce swelling. The ladies also used it as a perfume and for washing hair.  The root of the Galium tinctorium was also used for a red dye.

Locally, that is in central Florida, two Galiums are common, the Galium aparine and Galium tinctorium. They are fairly easy to tell apart. Galium aparine, the for-certain edible, has six to eight leaves in a whorls at a node. It prefers dry areas. Its white flowers have four petals. The Galium tinctorium, the smaller of the two, has four to six leaves in a whorl and likes damp places. Is white flowers have three petals (sometimes four.) While it would be nice if the Galium tinctorium were edible I have found no reference that says it is. If you know otherwise please let me know.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Galium aparine: A weak square stem plant covered with little hooks that bend back towards the bottom of the plant. Feels scratchy and will cling to almost any texture. Leaves small and skinny, usually in a whorl around the stem, eight leaves at a time, lowest leaves petioled and roundish; upper leaves sessile, narrowly oblanceolate. Minute  four petal-white flowers on small stalks where leaves meet the stem (axils). Fruit a tiny two-lobed capsule, covered with fine hooks.

TIME OF YEAR: May to July in northern climes, early March in Central Florida.

ENVIRONMENT: A wide variety, rich moist ground to upland scrub, woods, thickets, waste ground beside trails.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Young shoots and or tip of older plants raw or boiled 10/15 minutes. Serve warm with butter or olive oil, sale and pepper. Or, let them cool and use them in a variety of ways, salads, omelets et cetera. Slow-roasted (low temperature) roasted ripe seeds when ground make a good coffee substitute without caffein. Older plans are not edible. Look for new growth in spring.

According to Professor Gordon Brown, Goosegrass is good for the lymph system.

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{ 38 comments… add one }
  • Sue Kingsbauer March 27, 2012, 7:04 pm

    Thank you for an informative piece. Maybe if more of us harvested the goose grass and drank the tea, we would not consider its growth to be a nuisance. I am busy now harvesting the first shoots, and we are enjoying the “spring tonic.”

    • Marjorie Alcock February 17, 2017, 3:16 am

      My dog, when feeling a tad under the weather would normally chew the type of grass necessary to help his digestion or purge him, depending on his needs.
      However, recently he was diagnosed as having Canine prostate cancer and has started hunting for and eating cleavers. I was puzzled and my friends looked up the properties of this plant.
      My dog’s instinct to find and consume the appropriate plant for his problem,is astounding and I wonder if vets and other pet owners realize that perhaps their pets know better than them when it comes to medication. I thought I should share this with you.

  • Julianne Cordero June 13, 2012, 3:51 pm

    Lovely article, wonderfully informative. You reminded me that the patch of cleavers in my back pasture are perfect for steaming, and I shall do so this evening. However, it is always so jarring for Native folks like myself to be reading along, and then suddenly get bitch-slapped by the word “squaw.” if you have absolutely no idea how offensive a term this is, of course I understand completely, since for some reason so many people still think its ok to generically refer to Native women by a word that means, well, something like the word ****. Myeah, I know. How’d that one make it into the general lexicon, right? I will personally come and find you to shake your hand and buy you a coffee someday soon if you would hereafter agree to refer to Native women as, well, Native women. First Nations women if you’re in Canada. Okay, second point, just as important. Can you imagine how bizarre it would be to read the following: Hipster Urban and Rural Foragers, now utterly extinct, used cleavers for a delicious springtime potherb. Or, New Yorkers used Doritos as the primary celebratory food in a strange annual ritual called The Superb Bol. My point is, it’s weird for Native folks, all several million of us, to read about our implied extinction via references to how cool it was how we used to use plants. I’ve even had the cognitively dissonant experience of reading an article that talk about how the Chumash (my nation) only ate acorn out of sheer desperation because it tastes so bloody awful…while I was eating a bowlful of delicious, nutty, properly prepared acorn mush. Everyone saw the traditional food in my mouth as I rudely roared with laughter. But I digress. You know what’s weird? Oil companies, gas fracking operations, and developers of mcMansion neighborhoods know Indians exist, and refer to us, quite regretfully, in the present tense. You know why? Because we are in their faces and impossible to ignore. It would be so cool and neat and stuff if the people I actually like, like you, fellow forager of forest food, referred to us likewise, minus the regret. Thanks. I’ve said my piece. Nice article. I’m off to gather some cleavers. PS the sieve thing is way cool. Thanks for the tip.

    • Green Deane June 13, 2012, 4:19 pm

      I hadn’t though of that and made changes, to this article and another one…. does “babes in buckskin” past muster?

      • Deb Naha March 18, 2017, 1:13 pm

        I like your sense of humor!
        And as usual, this is a nicely- written and very informative article. Thank you.

  • Julianne Cordero June 13, 2012, 4:26 pm

    Lol!! How about “Chicks in Cedarbark”? Uh, totally kidding. Thanks for making the changes. You rule. I’m serious about the handshake and the coffee. You can find me on Facebook. Julianne Cordero-Lamb

  • Smoothie October 12, 2012, 8:46 pm

    Heard about using the plant in a blender so I made a taste smoothie out of them and been doing that ever since. Can’t wait until next year……..

  • rose macaskie November 10, 2012, 4:22 pm

    I want to know exactly how they used the gallium verum to curdle milk. Nice to know that, flavouring the cheese with the flowers is a separate bit of the cheese making process.
    Have read that cheshire cheese, that is reddish used to be red because of galium verum. The suggestion of the writer was that maybe the flowers died cheshire cheese red. Cheshire cheese is pretty markedly reddish, not yellowish and the dye of the flowers is yellow, maybe they used to use the roots to dye the cheese red or did they just use the whole plant roots included and get there curdled milk and their colour and flavour all at once? Laura Ingals Wilders mother used carrots in milk carrots to better the colour of her butter, maybe they sweetened it too. rose macaskie madrid.

    • Ms Julie Ann G Sutton May 21, 2017, 10:44 am

      The Cheshire Cheese in Cheshire, UK is not red at all and never has been, it is a very pale crumbly white cheese with very subtle flavour.
      Unless there is some mediaeval recipe that shows the colour is different I have not heard of it being red ever.

  • johanna March 6, 2013, 12:11 am

    i was wondering: if this herb was/is used to prevent pregnancy, is it logical to assume there may be a good deal of estrogen in it? or..?
    (it won’t be progesterone, the pregnancy maintainer, that is only obtainable from animal tissues).
    really love this article, as we have so much of this herb on our property in the No Bay Area (i thought it was poisonous!)

    thanks –

    • Green Deane March 7, 2013, 6:07 am

      Hormones in it? Not that I know of. Yams (Dioscorea) do, however.

      • RLM February 7, 2016, 1:14 am

        Alfalfa, red clover, and soy (soya) are just a few more plants humans eat that are known to contain estrogen or estrogen-like hormones.

        Though it is usually thought of as a forage crop for livestock, alfalfa, aka Lucerne – medicago (sp?- ) has a long history of use as a perennial food plant. Since it is found in some pastures, fallow fields, and as ‘volunteers’ maybe you could do an article on it sometime?

  • MQ March 8, 2013, 4:23 pm

    Thanks for the very timely information. I have bunches of cleavers growing around my clothesline and was just wondering what they were and if they were edible.

  • farouk March 9, 2013, 7:10 am

    In the Arab world Galium aparin is called “Lussaig” due to its sticking nature. They also name it”Hashishat al Afa’a i.e.snake’s grass according to what they notice in having simiilar pattern on the branches and the skin of the snake. Personally I have no idea if this is true or if the pattern is observed in another species – please check it. Please also check if the advise about the harm caused by this plant to the liver due to “pyrolizidene alkaloids is a good advise. To a chemist like myself “Gallium” with double L ,is the metallic element coming number 31 ,belonging to Group 13 and forth period of the Periodic Table of the elements -useful in semi-conductor technology and characterized by low melting point – just grab for a while to cause melting. The Russian Demitri Mendeleev(1871) according to his prediction has called this vacancy in his table ” eka – aluminium” . In 1875 the French, Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran has been able to discover the metal spectroscopically.Gallium occurs in low amounts in bauxite, germanite and sphalerite minerals. The name “Gallium” was given by its discoverer: gallia in Latin means Gaul after his native land France.

  • LaDonna March 18, 2013, 11:15 pm

    Have been looking at the cleavers here and they all have seven leaves. They are growing in the dry and damper soil as well.
    Any idea which gallium that may be? It looks like Galium aparine except the number of leaves.

    • Green Deane March 19, 2013, 7:33 am

      Not knowing your location that is difficult to say. But G. alarine can have seven leaves. Are they all seven?

      • LaDonna March 19, 2013, 6:14 pm

        Live in Oklahoma.
        Yes they are all seven. Looked yesterday at several places they are growing, and there has been no variation from the seven leaved whorl.

  • Katya Zaimov April 5, 2013, 4:13 am

    I learned about the edibility of the cleavers a few years ago and have been using it every spring, in salads and mixed green soups.

    The main use of the herb is for “blood purifying” as a tea (collect and dry the blooming stems, 8″ to 10″ long). The smoothie idea is great, I am going to try it!
    One interesting application which I have tried, is using the juice externally for eczema, mixed 1:1 with lard. In my experience, the mixing is not very successful, whichever oil I used, but it works! (I don’t exactly have eczema, but have some watery-itchy spots on the hands and arms due to an allergy.) The ointment cleared them much faster than without it.

  • Moriah May 12, 2013, 1:33 pm

    Really wanting to try some that is growing in my flowerbed. I have a mild bladder/ut infection. Ive clipped some tips and boiled them, but got concerned b/c they have already begun to seed. Have been told young shoots only. Are these plants too old now?

    • Green Deane May 12, 2013, 10:11 pm

      I am not an herbalist so I cannot answer that. From a food consumption point of view only young tips are eaten.

  • Christine June 23, 2013, 3:17 am

    Wow, I thought I had successfully eradicated this weed from my yard (Portland OR) when I read this article. I have picked the burrs out of my dog’s fur so many times! Luckily I found a small patch that I will leave alone and try some of the ideas here. For the coffee substitute, how do you roast?

  • Singer June 23, 2013, 5:40 pm

    I’ve wondered what that plant is! Thank you! We have some in our backyard and the dog loves it. In the spring we let the cows in the yard to eat the grass (too lazy to mow!) and they go out of their way to get it, too. I think I’ll try it myself next spring. I’ll save seed from it this year since we have our place for sale so I can plant some at our new place. But I’ll make sure and plant it where I can let the cows graze it down if it gets out of control.

  • John Chandler June 24, 2013, 12:49 pm

    Leave it to the insecure to make something other than what this is, information……….thanks for the info, I will make use of IT, and IT alone.

  • Barry K Jordan May 13, 2014, 6:15 pm

    Hi Green. I have been looking for info on Cleaver, as I have a bumper crop growing here at my southern Va home. I really want to try making coffee from it. But i was wondering when the seeds (fruit) are ripe. Here at mid May, I already have fruit, but most are very small, and I tried pulling off one, but it didn’t fall off when I touched it. I had to pull a little hard. So, will it come off easy when ripe, or what? Thanks for any info.

  • Birgit June 29, 2014, 8:11 pm

    Cleavers are a renowned herb. They have the ability to clean the blood. Good for all manner of chronic conditions. Especially good for clearing the virus that causes warts. Herbalists have used it successfully for many years. Use a tincture or a tea, but take it internally for at least a month. This herb is worth researching. I always harvest some and leave some. It’s safe for children and very effective.

  • CG July 3, 2014, 7:01 pm

    When making the seeds into a coffee substitute/extender, do I leave the Velcro skin layer on the seed or peel it off?

  • Lorna May 13, 2015, 4:39 am

    Thanks for a great article – my garden is overrun with these things. We don’t call them cleavers though – I’m from Fife, Scotland, where we call them Sticky Willies!

  • Rachel R. May 23, 2015, 8:56 pm

    I’m a little confused about these. Everywhere I read about them, I read to use the “tips,” but I don’t know what part is the “tips.” Does that refer to the top of the plant or outside edges of something?

    And is the remainder of the plant to be discarded?

    • Green Deane May 25, 2015, 8:00 am

      The growing ends farthest from the base of the plant.

  • Sue May 23, 2015, 11:01 pm

    I have something like this all over my yard. It looks quite like cleavers, minus the little hooks I have read from several other sources. The leaves on our plants are smooth and not as slender from the base, as I have seen pictured, but still narrow, elongated, slightly round-pointed ovals, if that makes sense. Otherwise, it behaves a lot like the cleavers: likes to stay in a bunch, very tumbly, likes to climb the fence for support, only it seems to stand well up to at least 12″, same flower arrangement. It doesn’t look like the sweet woodruff pictures at all, for the leaves are not wider in the middle and pointed at the ends, nor are the flowers of the same habit as sweet woodruff. It is edible, at least on a short term. So what type of galium is this? Is there a smooth-leaf cleavers?

    • Michael D Harper December 14, 2015, 1:41 am

      Related to Eleusine indica found in California? They call it Goosegrass there.


    • Carl in Texas January 13, 2016, 6:42 pm

      Sounds a bit like Carpetweed, maybe?

    • Ray April 7, 2016, 9:46 pm

      sounds like Galium mollugo

  • bob dagit December 30, 2015, 7:33 am

    i thought i recognized it but needed a detailed picture of the ‘tickseed’ heads. this looked familiar:

  • Dave Shoe December 13, 2016, 2:24 pm

    Do you happen to know the name of the dish from Friuli? Thanks!

  • Craig Harris May 6, 2017, 2:36 pm

    I’ve used this plant raw, dried, and brewed as a tea for poison oak. If I happen to get into poison oak, I find some fresh “Vinegar Weed”, as we call it, rub it onto the area and it will dry up faster. If it’s out of season, I’ll brew it and drink it as a tea to build up my immunity towards the poison oak. Here in the mountains of North Carolina, this plant is readily available by April but will start seeding out in early May. The earlier you gather it, the more potent it is.


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