Ladys Bedstraw – Miscellany of the 22 Botanicals

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Ladys Bedstraw is a low scrambling plant native to Europe, Asia and of course the Hebrides.

It is most at home on chalk downs, grasslands, heathland and coastal areas. It’s bright yellow flowers are in abundance throughout the summer and start to tail off when the leaves begin falling from the trees. It grows up to about 60cm/2 foot tall and you’ll find it by looking out for shocks of yellow across the landscape, it shouldn’t be hard to miss as it can cover fairly substantial areas.

The leaves of lady’s bedstraw consist of whorls; an arrangement that radiate from a single point rather like the spokes of a wheel. each whorl contains 8-12 leaves each with pointed tips. Plants that grow with similar leaf structure include, cleavers (goosegrass/sticky willy) and sweet woodruff both of whom are relatives.

When lady’s bedstraw dries it gives the scent of new-mown hay and, according to Richard Mabey in Flora Britannicait’s name most likely arose from the old custom of including it in straw matresses. Others believe the name arose from it’s use for disorders of the uterus and it is thought to help ease childbirth during the difficult hours. I’m guessing that the epidural trounced this use!

A relative of sweet scented bedstraw Galium odoratum L and cleavers Galium aparine L. lady’s bedstraw has long since found use in the kitchen mainly as a substitute for rennet when making cheese. As herbalist Monica Wilde has pointed out, “The history of the bedstraws with cheese goes back quite a way. The genus name Galium is derived from gala, the Greek word for milk. Goosegrass (Galium aparine) was said to be used to sieve curds and whey – its ability to stick to itself making it a perfect primitive sieve for Greek shepherds. One of the common names is ‘milk sweet’. Apparently all the Galiums can be used for rennet to some degree.” She also offers some recipes for making cheese using wild plants. Interestingly, bedstraw was the plant of choice when making cheese that needed some colour, chesses like Double Gloucester.

Ladys bedstraw, an asset in the herbalists armoury and one of the 22 botanicals in The Botanist.

There are many accounts of people finding it quite useless for this purpose. It is more likely to have been used to flavour the cheese

It’s worth taking note from Miles Irving, another fellow forager who doesn’t mince his words, on the efficacy of using lady’s bedstraw as a rennet. In his brilliant, The Foragers Handbook he states, “There are many accounts of people finding it quite useless for this purpose. It is more likely to have been used to flavour the cheese”. I suspect he is right in this way of thinking and I also suspect that science and the nomenclature for the one of the country names for bedstraw (cheese rennet) were half remembered truths passed down and mixed with a little folklore. This is often the case with country ways that may have been passed down orally.

But this perennial has been a very familiar asset in the herbalists armoury, helping with a whole manner of aliments including, kidney stones, gout, to stop bleeding and to aid the liver. Maria Treben the author of, Herbs through God’s Pharmacy and renowned Austrian herbalist suggests that it should be used fresh and that “When suffering from a disorder of the lymphatic system, one should drink this tea daily”.

Maria Treben also found some evidence to support the notion that bedstraw can aid with those suffering from cancer of the tongue, she suggests that some of here patients having gargled with it reported good health after a matter of weeks. Another Austrian author and plantsman Richard Willfort suggests that drinking bedstraw tea is an excellent remedy and he also suggests that mixing with bedstraw with butter as a remedy for cancerous growths and skin cancer. Although,  Dr. Heinrich Neuthaler in “The Herb Book” rather angrily disagrees: “The white flowering Bedstraw is recommended for cancer in some districts even today – a nonsense that cannot be opposed strongly enough.” As with all treatments it is worth doing your own research before making your mind up.

Beyond the kitchen and the pharmacy the dyer might well seek out the delights of lady’s bedstraw as the roots have been used for the colour red. They have lower concentrations of dye than many red producing plants (such as Madder or St Johns wort), but this is perfect if you are after paler reds. Often therefore, it is was used in the more remote places where other plants were unavailable. There is rich tradition, for example, of dyeing woolen items on the Hebrides. It was always foraged for as attempts to cultivate have been less than satisfactory as it’s tiny roots mean you have to cultivate huge areas in order to obtain any workable amount of dye.
My experience of Bedstraw is to give a little flavour to drinks. Just a few sprigs used as a Gin and tonic garnish can infuse it with a delightful floral flavour that is hard to place.

Go go on get out there and start exploring, as it is well worth seeking out this multifaceted herb.

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