Bedstraw, Lady'sBotanical Name: Galium verum (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Rubiaceae
Synonyms: Our Lady's Bedstraw. Yellow Bedstraw. Maid's Hair. Petty Mugget. Cheese Renning. Cheese Rennet.
Habitat: Yellow Bedstraw is abundant on dry banks, chiefly near the sea. Its small, bright yellow flowers are closely clustered together in dense panicles at the tops of the wiry, square, upright stems, which are I to 3 feet high, and bear numerous very narrow, almost thread-like leaves, placed six to eight together in whorls. The flowers are in bloom in July and August.
The plant is inodorous, but has an astringent, acidulous and bitterish taste.
The common English name of this plant, 'Our Lady's Bedstraw,' is derived from its use in former days, even by ladies of rank, for stuffing beds. (The origin of the name is more probably from the Christian legend that this was one of the 'Cradle Herbs,' i.e. was in the hay in the manger at Bethlehem. - EDITOR)
Dr. Fernie tells us that because of its bright yellow blossoms, this herb is also named 'Maid's Hair,' for in Henry VIII's reign 'maydens did wear silken callis to keep in order their hayre made yellow with dye.' It has also been known as 'Petty Mugget,' from the French petit muguet, a little dandy.
The plant has the property of curdling milk, hence another of its popular names ' Cheese Rennet.' It was called ' Cheese Renning' in the sixteenth century, and Gerard says (quoting from Matthiolus, a famous commentator of Dioscorides), 'the people of Thuscane do use it to turne their milks and the cheese, which they make of sheepes and goates milke, might be the sweeter and more pleasant to taste. The people in Cheshire especially about Nantwich, where the best cheese is made, do use it in their rennet, esteeming greatly of that cheese above other made without it.' The rich colour of this cheese was probably originally derived from this plant, though it is now obtained from annatto.
The Highlanders also made special use of Yellow Bedstraw to curdle milk and colour their cheese, and it has been used in Gloucestershire for the same purpose, either aloneor with the juice of the stinging-nettle.
The name of this genus, Galium, from the Greek word gala, milk, is supposed to have been given from this property of the plants which is shared more or less by most of the group.
Medicinal Action and Uses: Galium verum contains the same chemical principles as G. aparine.
It is still used to a limited degree as a popular remedy in gravel, stone and urinary diseases. It was formerly highly esteemed as a remedy in epilepsy and hysteria, and was applied externally in cutaneous eruptions, in the form either of the recently expressed juice, or of a decoction from the fresh plant. 'An ointment,' says Gerard, 'is prepared which is good for anointing the weary traveller.' Culpepper recommends the decoction to stop inward bleeding and bleeding at the nose, and to heal all inward wounds generally.
The flowering tips, distilled with water, are stated to yield an acid liquor which forms a pleasant summer drink.
The flowers of this species and still more those of G. elatum, an allied non-British species, are considered in France a remedy for epilepsy.
The Yellow Bedstraw can furnish a red dye, like its ally, the Madder of the Continent, Rubia tinctorum. It has been cultivated for the purpose, but with little or no profit, as the roots are too small, though it has been used in the Hebrides for dyeing woollen stuffs red. When attempts have been made to cultivate it, the produce per acre has occasionally exceeded 12 cwt., which is considered an average crop for Madder, but the roots do not yield as much in proportion, and its cultivation has never been undertaken on a very large scale, the crops having been found too small to pay under ordinary circumstances. The same cultivation is necessary as for Madder, the plant requiring a deep, light, but rich loam to succeed well, and the land must be well trenched an manured before planting. The running roots are to be planted, though it may be raised from seed, a plan that has also sometimes been adopted with Madder.
The stem and leaves of this Galium yield good yellow dye, which has been used to great extent in Ireland.
Several other species of this genus have roots capable of yielding red or yellow dye but none of them have been practical applied, their produce being too small to admit of their successful cultivation as dyed plants.