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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Madder Family, Rubiaceae

Although only a few Rubiaceae grow in Idaho, the family is moderately large, consisting of over 650 genera and some 13,000 species. Almost all—trees, shrubs, vines and a few herbaceous plants—are tropical plantss. Family characteristics include square stems, opposing narrow leaves usually arranged as whorls at intervals along the stem, and small four or five petaled flowers. Some contain important alkaloids: quinine (Cinchona spp.) and ipecac (Psychotria emetica)—both from South American trees; yohimbine derived from an African tree (Corynanthe johimbe), used to treat impotence and as a topical vasodilator in surgery; and coffee from the fruit of various species of Coffea (Africa). Some of our most important garden ornamentals are also in the madder family: Gardenia, Penta, Ixora, and others. Finally, the red dye madder from which the family takes its common and scientific names—was also obtained from species of Rubiaceae. The bedstraws (Galium spp.) are sweet smelling Rubiaceae that dry to give a springy stuffing used in the past for pillows and mattresses, whence their common name. “Cleavers” is another name for bedstraws, one that conjures up mental pictures of a wicked kitchen utensil. “To cleave” is an Old English word, however, one that means “to stick” or “adhere” (cf. the injunction “cleave unto me”), this because the seeds, stems, and branches of some bedstraws easily attach themselves to passersby. 

Fragrant bedstraw, Galium triflorum Michx. (left), scrambles along forest floors, climbing other plants. Its bright green, narrow leaves form whorls at intervals along the stems. Small four-petaled flowers, inconsistently borne in groups of three (triflorum) at the end of long stemlets, arise at the leaf nodes. They give off a sweetish grassy odor; one can understand how the dried plants of this and related species might pleasant smelling bedstraw for pillows and mattresses. The plant’s appearance is similar to that of the related European herb, sweet woodruff or waldmeister (Galium odoratum Scop.), that is steeped in white wine to make May wine.

Watson’s bedstraw, Galium watsonii (A. Gray) A. Heller, (right) is an atypical galium, covered with long bristly hairs. The plant blooms in the summer, favoring high dry places. The flowers of most bedstraws are small and quite unremarkable. This plant’s light yellow, four-petaled flowers are also small, but long bristles originating on the flowers’ ovaries protrude to give it a brush-like appearance (the plants are dioecious—the male plants are not so hairy). The name Galium is derived from the Greek gala for “milk” (cf. “galaxy” for the milky way), because the European yellow bedstraw (Galium verum L.) curdles milk and formerly was used as vegetable rennet in cheese-making, imparting the plants’ yellow color to the finished product (nowadays rennet derived from the lining of calves’ stomachs is used for the same purpose and the yellow color is often an added food dye).

Northern bedstraw, Galium boreale L., is an ubiquitous circumpolar plant found all through the United States (save a few southern states), Canada, Greenland and Eurasia. The plants are many-branched with four lanceolate leaves arising from stem nodes. Dense clusters (“cymose panicles”) of small four-petaled white flowers are borne on stemlets given off from leaf nodes at the top of the stems, producing, overall, a showy profusion. The plants grow at all elevations, from sea-level to tree-line, preferring moist situations. (The background yellow composites are a species of Arnica.)

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