The sticky willie, from dye to diet

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we enter the month of July, one plant is particularly noticeable as having done extremely well this year.

Anyone with a long-haired dog or a propensity for wearing woolly jumpers while berry picking, will know the one I mean.

Yes I’m talking about the “sticky willie”, or cleavers as it is more widely known.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as rampant as it is this year, completely engulfing hedgerows in some places.

Such a common and widespread plant is often overlooked by most people (me included), so I decided to delve into some of my ancient botanical books to see if I could learn more about it.

Firstly, it is not at all sticky, but its clinging ability comes from tiny backward-facing hooks which run up the edges of the square stems and along the leaf spines. These hooks allow it to scramble over other vegetation without falling backwards and because it grows so quickly, it can cover considerable distances.

The flowers are tiny, insignificant, white and four petalled, growing on thin stalks from the leaf axles. These eventually form the small round fruits or burrs which are also covered in little hooks.

This enables them to attach themselves to virtually anything remotely hairy which brushes against them, allowing the seeds to be carried great distances from the parent plant.

As such a well-known plant, it has acquired many local names from all over the country, such as “goose grass” as it was often used as food for young geese, “catchrogue” because it grows in hedges and would stick to the clothes of anyone who tried to break through, and “goosebill” as the leaves have coarsely toothed margins like a goose’s bill.

One of the more macabre names was “tongue bleed” – the reason why would be obvious to anyone who tried to drag a portion of the plant across the mouth.

Other uses for it were many, as I discovered. Swedes used the dried and ground fruits for coffee (it comes from the same family) and the stems used as a sieve.

Beer can be made from it and the young shoots in spring were used to make a broth.

A red dye can be made from the roots and there were many medicinal uses.

These included using the juice to help earache and bites from poisonous snakes and spiders.

For anyone who has tried Weight Watchers and failed, this extract from one of my old books may be of interest.

“When added to broth it will keep lean and lank, them that are apt to grow fat”.

Next time the dog comes home covered in “sticky willies”, just think what you could use them for!