It’s that time of year when that water-filled native herb that has gone largely unnoticed in yards suddenly gets clingy and grabs your attention – literally – as it latches onto your clothes and uses you to transport its tiny seeds down the path.
“As a kid – and honestly, just last week – I’d throw it on people as a lark,” said Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “It’s pretty entertaining, in a sophomoric way, to see reactions to it sticking on clothing or in someone’s hair.”
Although she is not stuck on Galium aparine, even when it gets “prickly,” the herb can be boiled to “neutralize the hairs.” When the plant is younger and more tender, DeLong-Amaya added, it can be eaten raw as a potherb.
“I eat the tips all the time and put [them] in a salad,” said Charles M. Allen, author of the book Edible Plants of the Gulf South. “I just finished a class this past weekend where we ate it. I have not tried to cook [it] and only have eaten it fresh.”
Allen suggested that the leaves and stems be cooked as greens.
Thanks to consistent rainfall, the un-prickly stage of Galium aparine continued for many weeks this year, making it abundant for foragers.
When cooked, the tender plant’s flavor “is reminiscent of fresh green peas,” said Edible Adventures owner Konrad DeLorentz, adding that this plant family provides food worldwide. Edible Adventures is a guided foraging experience of local edible, medicinal, and other useful plants led by DeLorentz in the Austin area.
“Our brains have a wild tendency to compare new flavors to what we already know,” DeLorentz said. “Cleavers are a truly cosmopolitan, abundant wild edible. While there is some debate as to where they are native to exactly, they grow all over the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, and South America.”
Allen said Galium aparine is the most common and widespread species of cleavers, known in San Antonio as “velcro plant,” among many other nicknames.
“As cleavers grow, they become too scratchy to eat directly,” DeLorentz explained. “This doesn’t mean they are of no use. On the contrary, they are an excellent candidate for tea.”
He added that crushing fresh plants is the method used for highest nutritional value. Packages of tea, such as Traditional Medicinals organic lemon flavor Every Day Detox Tea, can be seen on the shelves of area grocery stores.
Allen recommends drying and using the entire plant for tea. He said another drink can be made by drying and lightly roasting the seeds. The resulting drink is one of the more popular substitutes for coffee, a plant within the same plant family, Rubiaceae.
Matt Turner, author of The Remarkable Plants of Texas, who has researched native Texas plants from a historical perspective, said that there are many native plants used for coffee substitutes, but people trying them should realize that they will not taste like coffee. Each plant has its own unique taste.
“I encourage everyone to see them for what they are by appreciating their own unique flavors and qualities,” DeLorentz said. “Most wild edible plants in our area are truly unique foods.”
DeLong-Amaya said that most gardeners consider Galium aparine a nuisance. This may explain the reluctance that many expressed to have their names associated in print with their own uses of the plant. Off the record, San Antonio gardeners did have several things to say.
Uses of Galium aparine to which San Antonio gardeners confess only anonymously include:
- “Greens” for the compost pile during a time of year when there are too many “browns”
- Cover plant to protect wildflower seedlings until they get taller, at the same time that this plant withers away
- Nesting material for birds at a time of year when other materials are scarce
- Additional calcium, moisture for compost pile
- Balance of soil by thriving on and drawing out things that make it so alkaline
- Something green in the winter garden that does not have to be weeded because it withers away with warmer weather
- Ground cover to protect soil in winter garden
- Green compost, green manure
- Highly nutritious green food
- Poor substitute for its relative, “bedstraw” but okay for crafting wreaths
As “velcro plant” withers and disappears with higher temperatures and more intense sunshine this spring, be a good cheerleader and enjoy your detox tea.