Sandy’s Garden ... Lady’s Bedstraw

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Murdo Morrison, a Lewisman by birth and a good personal friend, spoke recently with the members of the Probus Club of Polmont about the Harris Tweed.

He emphasised the definite article to differentiate the official product from any fabric not produced in accordance with the strict rules set by the Harris Tweed Authority. Who better to speak about this world-famous product of the Western Isles than a man who joined the Board of the Harris Tweed Authority in 1999 after serving in the Royal Navy and going on to become a Training Manager and then Public Relations Manager of an international oil company? And let me remind you, gentle reader, lest perchance you are wondering about the suitability of a man born in Lewis to be an arbiter on Harris tweed, that the two islands are parts of a single whole so that a Lewisman and a Hearach are actually natives of the same island.

Now in the sixteenth century … as I learn from The Botanist, a website of Bruichladdich Distillery, the makers of Islay Gin … “maydens did wear silken callis to keep in order their hayre made yellow with dye,” a dye which came from the stem and leaves of Galium verum, a plant commonly known as lady’s bedstraw. And the roots of lady’s bedstraw were traditionally used to produce a bright red dye, similar to madder, with which to dye wool which was woven into a fabric which was the precursor of Harris Tweed.

There are at least two explanations of how lady’s bedstraw came by its name. One is that, according to Christian legend, the dried stems of the plant had formed the ‘mattress’ on which the Virgin Mary gave birth in Bethlehem and so were known in medieval times as ‘our Lady’s bedstraw’. A second … and for my money more plausible explanation … is that the stems were a popular choice for bedding before the days of feather mattresses because they were soft and springy and had a pleasant honey-like scent, allied to a belief that they discouraged fleas. But, as they say, ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice.’

Whatever, Galium verum is, and I quote the Royal Horticultural Society’s description, “a stoloniferous perennial with erect or sprawling stems bearing whorled linear leaves and terminal panicles of tiny 4-lobed yellow flowers in late summer.” (Stoloniferous means ‘plants connected by runners’ like, for example, strawberries). The plant is found throughout Europe … including all parts of the British Isles … and south-west Asia. It thrives best in meadows, on cliff tops, under hedges, on sand dunes and in other grassy places, spreading by creeping along the ground sending up tall flowering stems in summer. It is happiest in partial shade, is tolerant of dry conditions but will not thrive in a hot climate. I would not recommend at as a garden plant for it is a close relative of Galium aparine, otherwise known as cleavers or ‘Sticky Willy’, so it readily becomes invasive.

Apparently in 2002 a poll among regular listeners to The Archers … the world’s longest-running radio soap opera with more than 18 600 episodes to date (July 2018) … lady’s bedstraw was voted the County Flower of Borsetshire. Closer to home, the plant was used by our Scottish ancestors to treat urinary and kidney problems as well as epilepsy, hysteria and skin diseases; and as if this were not enough, it was used to help stem bleeding. More? Yes, lady’s bedstraw was formerly used to curdle milk by cheese-makers and takes its botanical name from this one-time use, for ‘gala’ is the Greek word meaning ‘milk’; and Galium verum is ‘the real galium’ rather than any of its upstart relations. Now that’s what I call an interesting past for a plant used nowadays as one of the herbals in Islay gin!