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weeds with sticky seeds

Getting rid of a Sticky Willy plant is easy enough; in fact, it’s just a matter of pulling it from the ground. However, each plant can have between 300 and 400 seeds, which spread readily and can lie dormant in soil for six years.

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.

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.

Identifying Sticky Willy by Its Small Spines

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 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.

The seeds and foliage of Sticky Willy can contaminate the wool and fur of some livestock raised for the production of clothing. If animals consume it, it can inflame their digestive tracts. Its seeds can get stuck in the fur of animals and is very difficult to remove. It can also carry with it different diseases and pests.

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.

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.”

To prepare a spring tonic, she makes a tincture of sticky Willy by steeping crushed plants in a jar with vodka for about six weeks. Then she strains and dilutes it to make the tonic. Hmm. Add a squeeze of lime and a splash of simple syrup and this sounds like a tonic that could catch on at happy hours around town. A sticky Willy on the rocks?

Some gardeners call it the Velcro plant. Others know it as cleavers or sticky weed. My favorite common name for Galium aparine? Sticky Willy.

She says the important thing to do now is to get lawns healthy again, so that invading weeds won’t find a welcoming environment.

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.

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.

The plant is bursting with medicinal properties: antispasmodic; antiphlogistic; aperient; astringent; detoxificant; diaphoretic; diuretic; depurative; vulnerary; a noted lymphatic and urinary tract cleanser; refigerant; febrifuge; laxative; lowers blood pressure; sliming and tonic. The juice has stronger diuretic and laxative properties than infusions. It was once a common feature of cures for obesity and dropsy.

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 having a bumper harvest of cleavers this year. Okay, I know the majority of gardeners view it as a weed and so ‘harvest’ sounds plain wrong — but I don’t think of it as a weed. It’s not quite a crop but it is useful to how I garden — which is to be chemical-free and to reap the benefits of every plant that finds its way in. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is one of the weeds I welcome, for its horticultural and medicinal benefits and its story too.

It is often noted that sap may cause contact dermatitis with sensitive skin but the plant also has a history of use as a cosmetic aid: A crushed leaf compress or a butter and juice salve has a remedial action on skin conditions and wounds. Cleavers are high in silica which is beneficial to hair, teeth and nails. The plant has been used as a cleansing lotion for acne and other conditions of the skin and as a cooled infusion to rinse dandruff prone scalps.

The botanical name also reminds us of its gripping nature as in the Greek derived aparine meaning to “lay hold of” or “seize”. Traditionally cleavers were employed for a grip of a different nature — woven in to sieves to strain impurities from milk. As kids, my friends and I took advantage of those Velcro-like hairs and played a ‘throw and tag’ childhood game with the stems as we often did with the darts of flowering grasses.

Plants, even the ones we often dismiss as weeds, have fascinating backstories. Cleavers get their common name for their reputation to cleave to — as their hairy stem and fuzzy seed structure does adhere easily to passers-by — so their stems and seed may stick to your clothes or the fur of your pet and make their way back from a walk, right into your garden. What a cool way to disperse the next generation — hitchhike. A sneaky trait, but you’ve got to admire efficiency and tenacity.