A spreading, sprawling annual with 4-sided stems that are rarely upright. Flowers arise on long stems from leaf axils, white, with 4 petals; in small groups, each group subtended by a few bracts. Blooms May–July. Leaves in whorls of 6–8, usually about 2 inches long, linear to oblanceolate. All green parts are covered by small, coarse, recurved hairs that cling to animals and clothing. Fruits are round, about ¼ inch across, with bristles, green at first, turning tan. The fruit matures by early summer, and the entire plant dries up. The plants aren't seen until the seeds germinate the next spring.
Similar species: There are 15 species of Galium recorded for Missouri. Some species sprawl on the ground or on nearby vegetation, while others are more erect. Some are native to America and others are introduced. Most have 4 or more leaves per node. The fruits form in pairs, like two tiny balls side by side.
Height: only to about 1 foot before it falls onto the ground and sprawls.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in moist or rich woods and thickets, wooded valleys, waste places, roadsides, and gardens; almost any shaded area. The "stickiness" of the tiny balls of the fruit as they "cleave" to one's clothing is a dispersal strategy that many plants have evolved. By "hitchhiking" on a passing animal, the seeds are carried to new locations. If some locations prove suitable, then the genetic strain is less likely to disappear in a localized catastrophe.
The Rubiaceae, or madder family, is also the family of coffee, quinine, and gardenia. Although many bedstraw species have square stems, that characteristic is usually associated with members of the mint family. As with most botanical identifications, characteristics of flowers and fruits are more important for classifying plants than vegetative traits (leaves, stems, etc.). Mint flowers are tubular, two-lipped, with 2 lobes above and 3 below (thus very different from bedstraw).
Early settlers used the dried, pleasantly aromatic “straw” to fill bedding. When dried and roasted the fruits have been used as a coffee substitute; it is said to be one of the better-tasting coffee substitutes from North America. Herbalists maintain that there are several medicinal uses, too.
The caterpillars of some moths eat the foliage, and Canada geese have been known to nibble the leaves, too; this might explain the common name "goose grass."