Galium spp.

Bedstraw (cleavers, goose grass)


       Galium seeds are generally found both whole and in fragments in sieve sizes less than 2.0 mm. They occur in archaeobotanical samples from sites of both agricultural and non-agricultural groups.

       Archaeobotanically, Galium seeds are rounded, with a flat side having a relatively large aperture which leads to the interior (Figure 1). Carbonized seeds are about 2 mm in diameter, although they range between 1-3 mm. The surface texture is finely corrugated. Whole seeds and large fragments are easily identified due to the characteristic aperture. Smaller fragments can be more difficult to identify. Paleoethnobotanists are hesitant to identify Galiumto species, but specimens appear identical to modern Galium aparine L.


Archaeological Distribution

       Galium's archaeological distribution is both temporally and spatially widespread. Galium is found from the Middle Archaic through the Mississippian Periods in the Eastern Woodlands and beyond. Galium has been found in archaeobotanical assemblages throughout the Midwest and southeast, including Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma and Illinois.


The Modern Plant and Its Distribution

       Galium aparine is a sprawling plant having lengthy, weak stems with prickly hooks and 6-9 small leaves on the round stem with small white flowers. The seed is bristly, yellowish-brown to grayish-brown, with a diameter of 2-3 mm (Figure 2). It occupies a variety of habitats, including beaches, thickets, river banks and rocky woods. It is found in most of temperate North America, from Newfoundland to Alaska and south to Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas and Mexico. Seeds are available in June and July, while the young sprouts are available from March to July. The seeds adhere to the plant until late summer/early fall.



       Galium's usage is a matter of debate. Some assert that although the fruits might have been collected incidentally or disseminated accidentally (by sticking to clothing or fur of animals), they had very little food value and were not used as such (Asch and Asch 1985:389). Others suggest that the "...seeds were being subjected to processing such as parching in preparation for use as some type of drink or food element" (Fritz 1989:79). There is also the possibility that the plant was gathered for bedding or fragrance, as well as being used medicinally. Galium's ubiquity and its inclusion in samples with other edible seeds, while not precluding other uses, makes it likely that it was used as a food and/or beverage (Fritz 1989). Galium seeds, when dried and slightly roasted, can also be used as a coffee substitute. When properly prepared, the seeds have the same flavor and aroma of coffee.

       There is ample ethnohistoric evidence that Galium was used medicinally. The Cherokee, Chippewa, Cowlitz, Fox, Gosiute, Iroquois, Micmac, Ojibwa and Penobscot all used Galium aparine medicinally, for a variety of purposes. It was used as a laxative, a dermatological aid, a diuretic, a love medicine, a kidney aid and a venereal aid, among other things. Other Galium species were also used medicinally (Moerman 1986).

       Galium aparine was used in Europe for numerous other purposes, including that of a reducing diet. "In these times when the buxom form is so often looked upon askance Cleavers or Goosegrass might be utilized for in the 16th century Gerrarde wrote: 'Women do vsually make pottage of Clevers with a little mutton and otemeale, to cause lankness, and keepe them from fatness'" (Fernald and Kinsey 1958:342-43).



Asch, D. L., and N. B. Asch

    1985   Archeobotany. In Smiling Dan: Structure and Function at a Middle Woodland Settlement in the
            Illinois Valley, edited by B. Stafford and M. Sart, pp. 327-401. Research Series 2. Center for
            American Archaeology, Kampsville, Illinois.

Fernald, M., and A. Kinsey

    1958   Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America. Harper Brothers, New York.

Fritz, G. J.

    1989   Evidence of Plant Use from Copple Mound at the Spiro Site. In Contributions to Spiro
            Archeology: Mound Excavations and Regional Perspectives, edited by J. D. Rogers et al, pp.
            65-87. Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, Norman.

Moerman, D. E.

    1986   Medicinal Plants of Native America, vol. 1. Technical Reports No. 19. Museum of
            Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Written by:  Malaina Brown