The Galium genus includes 617 species of plants as of 2010, most of which are commonly called bedstraw. These plants are grown throughout damp woods, streams, and swamps of the northern and southern hemisphere. They are annual and perennial herbaceous plants that are part of the Rubaiceae family. Leaves of these plants are needle-shaped, usually growing in groups of four to 12 on each plant. Clusters of small flowers in white and yellow blossom in July and August, bearing fruit in the form of small nuts.
Bedstraw plants grow in moist soils that are rich in nutrients. They grow in bunches along fence rows and under the shade of trees, and can be easily removed by hand. Some of the most common types of these plants found in Europe and North America are northern bedstraw and marsh bedstraw. They also grow in some parts of Asia.
The most common species is Galium verum, which has large yellow flowers and eight leaves. It grows abundantly in North America and European countries. This species is said to be the sweetest of all the bedstraws.
Another common species called bedstraw is Galium cruciatum, which also has yellow flowers, but it is distinguished by its four leaves. White flowers are found on the species Galium palustre, Galium cinereum, and Galium pusillum. Galium aparine is used to make a tea for colds, and its seeds can be used to substitute coffee.
These plants are called bedstraw because of one of their most well-known uses. In the medieval times, the plants were dried to stuff beds and mattresses. Ladies of great rank used it to make their bedding soft and perfumed, as did the peasants. The plants were used for comfort across England due to the legend of the Virgin Mary, who was believed to have laid Christ atop these plants the day he was born. Supposedly the flowers transformed into gold as she placed the baby upon them, and hence the plants earned one of their many names: Our Lady’s bedstraw.
Some people attempt to comfort their aching feet by soaking them in hot water with bedstraw. Another use of these plants is coagulating milk in the manufacture of cheese, as its flowers have the ability to curdle milk. The roots of these plants can also be used to produce red, orange, or yellow natural dyes.
As of 2010, some plants were considered threatened. This includes Galium australe which is critically low in population due to grazing and pollution. Galium labradoricum is also endangered and of special concern in most states of the United States. Other endangered species are Galium kamtschaticum, Galium catalinense, and Galium californicum.