I don’t have much of a lawn, but for those of you who do, Daphne Richards, Travis County’s extension agent, says you’re having more weed problems this year (sticky Willy as well as others) because of recent heavy drought, high heat and watering restrictions. “Lawns were stressed and had no time to recover before the weather got cold and they went dormant. The dead patches in dormant lawns allowed space for the weeds to root and take off with all of the winter rain.”
Some enterprising folks dry and roast sticky Willy seeds and use them as a caffeine-free coffee substitute, according to “Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest.”
Sticky Willy can also be consumed as a tea, according to several other herbal sources. “The Handbook of Alternatives to Chemical Medicine” suggests steeping 1 teaspoon of crushed leaves in 1 cup of boiling water to promote weight loss and soothe irritation of the urinary tract. Or cook it with beans, to add flavor and reduce flatulence. Sticky Willy Beano?
Some gardeners call it the Velcro plant. Others know it as cleavers or sticky weed. My favorite common name for Galium aparine? Sticky Willy.
Last weekend, after two hours of nonstop weed pulling (henbit and chickweed as well as S. Willy), I removed strands of sticky Willy from my pant legs, my work boots – and the back of my head. Ugh.
But no matter what you call it, if you do any kind of yard work or gardening, you’ve probably rubbed up against this annual whose seeds germinate in the cool wet weather of late winter and then grow rapidly into swirly, sticky stems of green that glue themselves to your fence, your pets and your socks.
But before declaring war on this annoying, cloying thing, I decided to take a closer look. Why is it in my backyard? Can I make it go away? And should I first consider what it might be good for? Every living thing has some redeeming value, right? Right. So, here’s what I’ve dug up so far on sticky Willy:
Sticky Willy is quite easy to identify, thanks to the downward-pointing brown prickles on its leaves – which appear in groups of between six and eight – and stems. Its oblong-shaped eggs have slightly notched tips. Its seed leaves, or cotyledons, are smooth, however. If allowed to mature, Sticky Willy can grow to be 40 inches tall. Large groups of the plants often spread in dense mats over the ground, made all the more dense by their spines. Their flowers are four-parted and often white or greenish-white.
Some herbicides have proven to be effective in removing the pesky plant. Contact herbicides containing acetic, fatty or pelargonic acids can scorch off Sticky Willy’s foliage, including its seed leaves. However, these can damage nearby plants, so covering desirable garden plants is recommended, at least until the chemicals dry on the weed foliage.
Identifying Sticky Willy by Its Small Spines
The weed can be found around the world. Most often, Sticky Willy grows in moist and shady areas such as areas filled with waste, on roadsides and in gardens. The species can also affect the growing of hay, rapeseed, sugar beets and various cereals.
The best way to remove the plants for good is to get them out of the soil before the plants flower and develop their seeds — ideally in the early spring. This can be done using a hoe or another tool that gets to the roots, or by hand. As the plant’s sap is irritating, wearing gloves is an important step if you choose the latter option. If the plant has already flowered, attempting to remove it will only spread the seeds.
Gardeners looking to avoid Sticky Willy near their homes should be sure to brush down their clothing and pets after walking in areas where the weed is commonly found, or after exposure. Like most parts of the plant, the seeds are covered in tiny barbs that can stick to cloth or fur easily. The seeds spread easily, and even a few of the hardy seeds can cause an outbreak in a garden.
The plant is grazed by fowl and farmyard animals – hence the colloquial name of goosegrass. The seeds and green leaves can provide a staple chicken fodder and as fodder crop for other poultry, cattle, sheep and horses. While as a human food stuff, soups and juices are known, but are more remedial than culinary (a touch too bitter for most palates). So if your sustainability has you keeping poultry, then this weed is better in their feed than in the compost bin.
The horticultural benefit of having this weed in your garden is that it indicates fertile soil. Furthermore it is a dynamic accumulator of sodium, silica and calcium — so great to make a liquid feed or soil drench. I am not saying cultivate it, but use it if you have it. If you can’t bear the thought of including a weed in your food, medicine or horticultural practices that’s ok too.
By way of a note on human consumption: because of the high tannin content, cleavers in any consumable form, make a powerful astringent and amongst its active components, it contains coumarins which thin the blood and asperuloside which can be converted into prostaglandins that stimulate the uterus and affect blood vessels.
I am a fan of cleaver-infused water as a refreshing but also a ‘health’ drink. I harvest the aerial parts before flowering. Rinse under water and gently pat dry with a paper towel. Then I slice a few stalks and add to a glass of water. Place in fridge and leave overnight to infuse. Strain and drink. The cold infusion acts as a lymphatic tonic and flavours the water quite nicely too.
Compresses and poultices have been used to draw impurities from the skin. The guide recipe for lotion is a handful of pounded herb to be infused in a pint of milk. Crushed leaves neutralise acidic perspiration and helps soothe armpits. The infusion as a wash and detox-tea is beneficial to psoriasis, erythema and erysipelas. A decoction of the stems is said to address the redness and distress of sunburn.