Some gardeners call it the Velcro plant. Others know it as cleavers or sticky weed. My favorite common name for Galium aparine? Sticky Willy.
According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, sticky Willy is a native throughout North America. Under “benefits,” it is listed as having a “conspicuous flower.” Well, maybe if you’re using a magnifying glass. The Wildflower Center entry also points out that the plant is sometimes called bedstraw because one of its sweeter smelling cousins (G. verum) was used to stuff mattresses in medieval times.
Corn gluten meal is an organic pre-emergent treatment recommended by many organic sources to help control annual weeds. Some gardeners swear by it, but others say it’s not very effective. I haven’t tried it, but I’m planning to before next spring. (Some of my sticky Willy is already blooming, so I might have missed my best chance to stop its spread by yanking it out.)
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.”
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.
Perhaps best known as Sticky Willy, Galium aparine – USDA growing zones 3 to 7 – is an annual plant, largely considered to be a weed. With some basic steps, however, the savvy gardener can effectively remove it from his or her yard. Also known as Goosegrass, Coachweed, Catchweed and Cleavers, it can cause some serious problems for both gardeners and farmers.
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.
Why Get Rid of Sticky Willy?
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.
Applying a heavy layer of organic mulch or using plastic mulch can also prevent the seeds from reaching the soil or getting enough light to grow.
The sap of the plant can cause severe skin irritation in people who are sensitive to it. If left unchecked, the plant can also severely hinder other plants’ ability to grow. If left unchecked in agricultural operations, the plants can reduce crop yield in some species by between 30 and 60 percent.
Remove cleavers regularly by hand, or hoe off young seedlings before they set seed. Avoid getting seeds on clothing, as this can inadvertently spread it around the garden. Mulch borders with a 5cm layer of garden compost or composted bark to suppress seedlings.
A short-lived plant that grows sticky mats of foliage, which can swamp cultivated plants. It produces sticky seeds, which can be spread around the garden by animals and on clothing.
Cleavers (Galium aparine) grow rapidly during warm weather. The sticky stems are able to scramble around the garden, smothering small, cultivated plants and setting masses of seed. It’s usually introduced on the coats of animals, birds’ feathers or human clothing. Its lifecycle is approximately eight weeks from germination to setting seed.
freshly-cultivated ground in borders, established flowerbeds, pots, vegetable plots
Apply a contact weedkiller when the plants are young and before they get a chance to flower.