Sandy's Garden ... Sticky Willy Comes Unstuck

It’s one of the delights of living alongside – but a bit above – a railway line.

By Sandy Simpson
Monday, 22nd June 2020, 9:41 am
Updated Monday, 22nd June 2020, 9:42 am

Where a stone wall running along the top of a cutting and dating back to 1842 delineates the boundary between my garden and Network Rail’s estate, Network Rail generously share their vegetation with me and, occasionally, I with them.

So there was, if I say it myself, a small but very attractive display of daffodils on the side of the cutting in the spring and there’s a largish clump of butterfly-attracting red hot pokers … Kniphofias, for the technically-minded … brightening the scene just now. Meanwhile, on my side of the wall, there are foxgloves, thistles and sticky willy decorating my garden, despite my efforts to discourage them.

Recently, ahead of a decorative bark spreading session, I ascended my side of the slope to the summit wall, removing some unwanted plants as I went. And there it was – a large bundle of sticky willy which had appeared on the scene in a remarkably short period of time and now lay in a tangled heap like a bundle of tumbleweed attached to the ground by its slender roots.

Falkirk Herald gardening guru Sandy Simpson

The direction of its growth … away from the roots, of course … revealed that it had set off in what I might call the ‘wrong’ direction from its starting point, heading away from a choice of plants through which it could have climbed with gay abandon, using the myriad small hooked hairs which are a feature of its stems and leaves to latch on to its host as a parasitical invader. But no, this specimen had spread itself across a small patch of bare ground with, it seemed to me, increasing desperation to find something it could cling on to.

Wikipedia offers a fair selection of common names for this common plant. Bedstraw, bobby buttons, catchweed, cleavers, clivers, goosegrass, grip grass, robin-run-the-hedge, stickyback, stickybud, sticky grass, stickeljack, stickyjack, stickyweed, stickywillow, sticky willy and … a recent addition, obviously … velcroplant are all nominated; and there are many more local names all over the U.K. Presumably, since the plant is native to much of Europe, North Africa and Asia, stretching from Britain and the Canary Islands all the way to Japan, it boasts a huge variety of common names in these countries too.

The scientific community is divided about whether sticky willy … the name I grew up with … is native to North America, but it thrives nowadays throughout the Americas, the Antipodes and is now invading Africa. Its clinging habits … the ball-shaped seeds, called burrs, are also covered with hooked hairs … assuredly help spread the seed, as I know only too well; and it is more than possible that its success as a traveller is, at least in part, due to its ability to hitch a lift on human clothing, animal fur, plant materials and anything else is can get its hooks into.

Galium aparine … its Sunday name … is an annual plant, a plant which grows from seed, flowers, produces seed and dies in a single year, leaving its seed behind to replicate the process. It has creeping, straggling stems which stretch along the ground and climb on to almost anything they meet. Individual stems can extend a good metre from the point where a seed has taken root.

They have unobtrusive flowers, which are tiny, star-shaped and vary in colour from white to light green. Regarded as a noxious weed in many countries, its ready availability led to it having many uses in folk medicine, ranging from treating skin ailments through making poultices to curdling milk and being used as bedstraw. As the name ‘goosegrass’ suggests, geese enjoy eating it.

And you can share their meal, for Galium aparine is edible. Harvest the leaves and stems before the fruits … the burrs … appear, and cook these as a leaf vegetable. It can be eaten raw, but I am told that the tiny hooks make raw sticky willy fairly unpalatable. No, I haven’t tried it, raw or boiled; and no, I don’t intend to!