Pronunciation: (GAY-lee-um VEER-um)
Hardy perennial herb
Each summer, on a sunny morning in late July, a friend of mine drives out into the country. Parking at the edge of a gravel road that parallels the multilane parkway, she takes only a few steps up the embankment to a sea of bright yellow, honey-scented froth–a thriving patch of Our-Lady’s bedstraw at the peak of bloom. With a pair of scissors that she keeps in the car for just this purpose, she cuts a few sprays to brighten her apartment. My friend’s annual ritual demonstrates just one of the ways that people have celebrated this beautiful and useful herb.
The genus Galium comprises some 400 species of annual and perennial herbs found nearly worldwide. Our-Lady’s bedstraw (G. verum), also called yellow bedstraw, is native to Europe and Asia but is naturalized throughout much of North America. It is a perennial herb with creeping stolons and 3-foot-long erect, trailing, or sprawling stems that may be four-angled like those of mints or rounded. These are branched, often woody at the base, and usually covered with minute hairs. The leaves are shiny, needlelike (about 1/2 inch long), and borne in whorls of six to twelve. They are hairy on top and closely covered with minute hairs below.
The plant’s dense clusters of tiny, four-lobed tubular flowers blossom in midsummer. Occasionally, bedstraws with looser clusters of odorless, lemon yellow flowers are found intermingled with this fragrant, bright-yellow-flowered form. Some botanists have assigned these plants to G. verum, but others consider them a subspecies (subsp. wirtgenii) or even a different species (G. wirtgenii).
Other members of the Rubiaceae (madder family), in addition to its namesake dye plant madder (Rubia tinctorum), include the coffee tree (Coffea arabica), cinchona tree (Cinchona spp., the source of quinine), and gardenia (Gardenia spp.). Herbal relatives in the genus Galium include sweet woodruff (G. odoratum), a handsome ground cover and the source of the essential flavoring for the German spring punch Maibowle, and cleavers (G. aparine), a weedy plant prized in some folk traditions as a diuretic and spring potherb.
Uses for Our-Lady’s Bedstraw
Like sweet woodruff, the tops of Our-Lady’s bedstraw are fragrant when dried because of the presence of coumarin, whose scent has been likened to vanilla or new-mown hay. The tops have traditionally been used to stuff mattresses; this practice may have given rise to the legend that the Virgin Mary lined the manger in Bethlehem with it, hence the common name Our-Lady’s bedstraw. To stuff pillows or mattresses with this herb, cut the tops in midsummer and dry them in the sun. You’ll need a lot. Don’t be surprised if they rustle when you turn over in bed.
Another common name, cheese rennet, comes from the use in cheese making of an extract of the tops, which contains an enzyme that curdles milk. The generic name, Galium, derived from the Greek gala, means “milk” (verum is Latin for “true”). Sometimes the bedstraw extract was mixed with calf rennet, a curdling agent derived from the fourth stomach of calves. An acidic beverage made by distilling the tops in water dates at least to the seventeenth century.
The tops also yield a yellow dye that has been used to color butter, wool and silk yarn, women’s hair (in fifteenth-century England), and cheese, especially English Cheshire cheese. Like those of madder, the roots of Our-Lady’s bedstraw yield a red dye; using alum as a mordant creates coral, while chrome brings on a brick red. Those who believed in Doctrine of Signatures, according to which the appearance of an herb revealed its use, concluded that the red dye meant that the herb was good for stopping bleeding.
The first-century Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed an ointment of bedstraw to treat burns, and the seventeenth-century English herbalist Culpeper found it useful for treating children’s skin disorders.
Folk practitioners have recommended the use of Our-Lady’s bedstraw in a footbath or as a tea to be used as a diuretic, laxative, or treatment for epilepsy. No scientific studies support those uses, however, and Our-Lady’s bedstraw today is known principally as a pretty landscape plant.
Growing Our-Lady’s Bedstraw
Unlike the shade-loving sweet woodruff, Our-Lady’s bedstraw thrives in bright sunshine and tolerates dry soil. It is hardy in Zones 3 to 8.
To counter its invasive tendencies, plant this herb in a bottomless pot or in a spot where it won’t matter if it spreads. If it tends to flop, you can prop it up with twiggy prunings or enclose it in a peony hoop. Fresh seeds germinate more readily than those that have been dried and stored. You can easily increase your stock by dividing established plants in spring or early fall.