Herb to Know: Our-Lady's Bedstraw

  • Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

Genus: Galium verum
Pronunciation: (GAY-lee-um VEER-um)
Family: Rubiaceae
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.

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