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The medicinal Goosegrass (Galium aparine), which is a highly useful curative Simple, springs up luxuriantly about fields and waste places in most English districts. It belongs to the Rubiaceous order of plants, all of which have a root like madder, affording a red dye.
"Goosey, goosey, gander, whither do ye wander?" says an old nursery rhyme by way of warning to the silly waddling birds not to venture into hedgerows, else will they become helplessly fettered by the tough, straggling coils of the Clivers, Goosegrass, or, Hedgeheriff, growing so freely there, and a sad despoiler of feathers.
This hardy Goosegrass climbs courageously by its slender, hairy stems through the dense vegetation of our hedges into open daylight, having sharp, serrated leaves, and producing small white flowers, "pearking on the tops of the sprigs." It is one of the Bedstraw tribe, and bears a number of popular titles, such as Cleavers, Clithers, Robin run in the grass, Burweed, Loveman, Gooseherriff, Mutton chops, Clite, Clide, Clitheren, and Goosebill, from the sharp, serrated leaves, like the rough-edged mandibles of a goose.
Its stalks and leaves are covered with little hooked bristles, which attach themselves to passing objects, and by which it fastens itself in a ladder-like manner to adjacent shrubs, so as to push its way upwards in the hedgerows.
Goosegrass has obtained the sobriquet of Beggar's lice, from clinging closely to the garments of passers by, as well as because the small burs resemble these disgusting vermin; again it is known to some as Harriff, or, Erriff, from the Anglo-Saxon "hedge rife," a taxgather, or robber, because it plucks the wool from the sheep as they pass through a hedge; also Grip-grass, Catchweed, and Scratchweed. Furthermore, this Bedstraw has been called Goose-grease, from a mistaken belief that obstructive ailments of geese can be cured therewith. It is really a fact that goslings are extremely fond of the herb.
The botanical name, Aparine, bears the same meaning, being derived from the Greek verb, apairo, to lay hold of. The generic term, Galium, comes from the Greek word gala, milk, which the herb was formerly employed to curdle, instead of rennet.
The flowers of this Bedstraw bloom towards August, about the time of the Feast of the Annunciation, and a legend says they first burst into blossom at the birth of our Saviour. Bedstraw is, according to some, a corruption of Beadstraw. It is certain that Irish peasant girls often repeat their "aves" from the round seeds of the Bedstraw, using them for beads in the absence of a rosary; and hence, perhaps, has been derived the name Our Lady's Be(a)dstraw. But straw (so called from the Latin sterno, to strew, or, scatter about) was formerly employed as bedding, even by ladies of rank: whence came the expression of a woman recently confined being "in the straw." Children style the Galium Aparine Whip tongue, and Tongue-bleed, making use of it in play to draw blood from their tongues.
This herb has a special curative reputation with reference to cancerous growths and allied tumours. For open cancers an ointment is made from the leaves and stems wherewith to dress the ulcerated parts, and at the same time the expressed juice of the plant is given internally. Dr. Tuthill Massy avers that it often produces a cure in from six to twelve months, and advises that the decoction shall be drank regularly afterwards in the Springtime.
Dr. Quinlan, at St. Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, successfully employed poultices made with the fresh juice, and applied three times in the day, to heal chronic ulcers on the legs. Its effects, he says, in the most unlikely cases, were decisive and plain to all. He gave directions that whilst a bundle of ten or twelve stalks is grasped with the left hand, this bundle should be cut into pieces of about half-an-inch long, by a pair of scissors held in the right hand. The segments are then to be bruised thoroughly in a mortar, and applied in the mass as a poultice beneath a bandage.
Dr. Thornton, in his excellent Herbal (1810), says: "After some eminent surgeons had failed, he ordered the juice of Cleavers, mixed with linseed, to be applied to the breast, in cases of supposed cancer of that part, with a teaspoonful of the juice to be taken every night and morning whilst fasting; by which plan, after a short time, he dispersed very frightful tumours in the breast."
The herb is found, on analysis, to contain three distinct acids—the tannic acid (of galls), the citric acid (of lemons), and the special rubichloric acid of the plant.
"In cancer," says Dr. Boyce, "five fluid ounces of the fresh juice of the plant are to be taken twice a day, whilst constantly applying the bruised leaves, or their ointment, to the sore."
Some of our leading druggists now furnish curative preparations made from the fresh herb. These include the succus, or juice, to be swallowed; the decoction, to be applied as a lotion; and the ointment, for curative external use. Both in England and elsewhere the juice of this Goosegrass constitutes one of the Spring juices taken by country people for scorbutic complaints. And not only for cancerous disease, but for many other foul, illconditioned ulcers, whether scrofulous or of the scurvy nature, this Goosegrass has proved itself of the utmost service, its external application being at all times greatly assisted by the internal use of the juice, or of a decoction made from the whole herb.
By reason of its acid nature; this Galium is astringent, and therefore of service in some bleedings, as well as in diarrhoea, and for obesity.
Gerard writes: "The herb, stamped with swine's grease, wasteth away the kernels by the throat; and women do usually make pottage of Cleavers with a little mutton and oatmeal, to cause leanness, and to keep them from fatness." Dioscorides reported that: "Shepherds do use the herb to take hairs out of the milk, if any remain therein."
Considered generally, the Galium aparine exercises acid, astringent, and diuretic effects, whilst it is of special value against epilepsy, and cancerous sores, as already declared; being curative likewise of psoriasis, eczema, lepra, and other cutaneous diseases. The dose of the authorised officinal juice is from one to two teaspoonfuls, and from five to twenty grains of the prepared extract.
The title Galium borne by Bedstraws has been derived from the Greek gala, milk, because they all possess to some extent the power of curdling milk when added to it. Similarly the appellation "Cheese rennet," or, Cheese running (from gerinnen, to coagulate), is given to these plants. Highlanders make special use of the common Yellow Bedstraw for this purpose, and to colour their cheese.
From the Yellow Bedstraw (Galium verum), which is abundant on dry banks chiefly near the sea, and which may be known by its diminutive, puffy stems, and its small golden flowers, closely clustered together in dense panicles, "an ointment," says Gerard, "is prepared, which is good for anointing the weary traveller."
Because of its bright yellow blossoms, this herb is also named "Maid's hair," resembling the loose, unsnooded, golden hair of maidens. In Henry VIII's reign "maydens did wear silken callis to keep in order their hayre made yellow with dye." For a like reason the Yellow Bedstraw has become known as "Petty mugget," from the French petit muguet, a little dandy, as applied in ridicule to effeminate young men, the Jemmy Jessamies, or "mashers" of the period. Old herbalists affirmed that the root of this same Bedstraw, if drunk in wine, stimulates amorous desires, and that the flowers, if long smelt at, will produce a similar effect.
This is, par excellence, the Bedstraw of our Lady, who gave birth to her son, says the legend, in a stable, with nothing but wild flowers for the bedding.
Thus, in the old Latin hymn, she sings right sweetly:—
"Sleep, sweet little babe, on the bed I have spread thee;