Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Plants to Stuff a Mattress with.....

In the past - as their name suggests - some bedstraw species have been used for stuffing mattresses because they have pliable stems and make fragrant hay when dried. You would need to spend quite a long time collecting enough of this little ground-hugging species - heath bedstraw Galium saxatile  - to stuff a pillow, let alone a mattress. Up here in the North East heath bedstraw is quite common on dry, acid soils - this specimen was growing on bare ground in a felled pine plantation in the Derwent valley.

All bedstraws have stems with a square cross-section and tiny flowers in the form of a simple cross. This one is - appropriately - crosswort Cruciata laevipes (which was known as Galium cruciata when I was a botany student).

Crosswort has a long flowering period, from spring into summer and ..

... is robust enough to compete with grasses, often forming large stands on grass verges

Woodruff Galium odoratum has a particularly sweet scent of new-mown hay when it's dried (when it also turns black) and, around here at least, is the commonest woodland bedstraw. The other common feature of this family is that they all have their leaves arranged in whorls around the stem - and the leaves are especially large in this species.

The commonest bedstraw - cleavers aka goosegrass aka sticky Jack aka Galium aparine - is a persistent weed whose hooked hairs stick it to clothing, making it a favourite weapon for kids who like to throw handfuls of the plant at each other (at least they did in my day, maybe they do it electronically on a Playstation today). I've found this a handy plant for clearing my pond of duckweed, by dragging handfuls across the surface of the pond - it works a treat. I thought that this was my discovery but apparently handfuls of the plant have long been used as a crude filter for liquids - the Greek botanist Dioscorides (40-90 AD) got there before me and described how it could be used for straining milk.
The stem, seen in cross-section under the microscope, is also surprisingly beautiful.
Hedge bedstraw Galium mollugo, is another robust species....
.... that grows well over 50cm. tall and enlivens grassy places with masses of tiny flowers in late June and early July.

And finally, lady's bedstraw Galium verum which contains large amounts of coumarin and so has a powerful scent of new-mown hay when dried. The flowers have a honey-like scent. There have been attempts to cultivate this plant for the red dye produced by its roots, as a substitute for madder (which is also in the bedstraw family) and there are accounts of its flowers being used as an early source of yellow dye for colouring Cheshire cheese, adding sweetness to the flavour, although annatto from the tropical plant Bixa orellana replaced it. Apparent, the bones of pigs and chickens fed on lady's bedstraw turn red, which could add an interesting splash of colour to the Sunday roast.

Although bedstraws were used for stuffing mattresses (myth has it that lady's bedstraw, formerly known as Our Lady's Bedstraw, was used to stuff the Virgin Mary's bed, and Henry VIII is said to have enjoyed sleeping on a hay-filled mattress) it has been suggested that the 'straw' part of the name is a corruption of the word 'strow' and that the commonest use of this fragrant plant was as a strewing herb on floors. John Gerard describes how woodruff "being made up into garlandes and bundles, hanging up in houses in the heat of summer, doth very well attemper the aire, coole and make fresh the place, to the delight and comfort of such as are therein". More recently, in Victorian and Edwardian times, lady's laid the dried plant in the bottom of their drawers, to impart a sweet odour to stored clothes and to deter moths.


  1. All beautiful images of these wee plants. We call Cleavers 'Sticky Willy'. When I used to do guided walks in the Fairy Glen we passed a mass of Woodruff and I usually carried some dried woodruff in my pocket. This way I could show the visitors the difference between fresh (no smell) and dried (hay smell) when talking about bedstraw.

  2. The microscope section is wonderful.

  3. So many sweet scented plants!We have a grass called Khus, Vetiver in English, which is used for similar purposes.

  4. Thanks for the tip swanscot...

  5. Hi Adrian, there's a beautiful symmetry in sections of stems under the microscope isn't there?

  6. That's interesting lotusleaf - a plant I'd like to grow...


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