QUESTION: I’ve planted several herbs in my garden and wonder if I should mulch them. If so, what should I use?
ANSWER: Nowadays, we hear so much about the real and alleged benefits of mulch that we forget that it is optional. Old- timers didn’t use mulch at all, preferring to weed and loosen the soil regularly with a hoe or a cultivator. Their herbs grew perfectly well.
If your garden’s not too large, you have a tool that’s a joy to use, and you like the simple look of clean, bare soil – don’t bother to mulch. Be aware that each kind has its merits and drawbacks.
An Herb To Grow
Each summer, on a sunny morning, and depending on where you live, it can come out in late July in New England, but as early as June in more Southern and South West states, take a drive out into the country. The scenery alone will refresh and reinvigorate you! Park your car and walk, taking in all the scents and sights nature has to offer. In my part of the country, I drive down a gravely road, park my car, and walk up a hill, only to be in awe of the beauty before me. Below is a sea of bright yellow, honey scented froth — a thriving patch of Our-Lady’s bedstraw at the peak of bloom. With a pair of scissors that I keep in the car for just this purpose, I cut a few sprays to brighten the rooms of my home. This had become something of a ritual until I started to grow it myself.
This was just one way many people over the centuries have celebrated this beautiful and very useful herb.
The genus Gallium comprises some 400 species 400 species of annual and perennial herbs found nearly worldwide. Our-Lady’s bedstraw (G.verum), also called yellow bedstraw, is native to Europe and Asia but is naturalized throughout North America. It is a perennial herb with creeping stolons and 3-foot-long erect, trailing, or sprawling stems that may be four-angled like those of mints or rounded. These are branched, often woody at the base, and usually covered with minute hairs. The leaves are shiny, needlelike (about 1/2 inch long), and borne in whorls of six to twelve. They are hairy on top and closely covered with minute hairs below. The plant’s defense clusters of tiny, four-lobed tubular flowers blossom in mid-summer.
Occasionally, bedstraws with looser clusters of odorless, lemon yellow flowers are found intermingled with this fragrant, bright-yellow-flowered form. Some botanists have assigned these plants to G. verum, but others consider them a subspecies (subsp. wirtgenii) or even different species. Herbal relatives in the genus Galium include sweet woodruff, a handsome ground cover and the source of the essential flavoring for the German spring punch Maibowle, and cleavers, a weedy plant prized in some folk traditions as a diuretic and spring potherb.
Like sweet woodruff, the tops of Our-Lady’s bedstraw are fragrant when dried because the presence of coumarin, whose scent has been likened to vanilla or newly mown hay. Some people, even today, use the tops of this herb to fill their mattresses. But don’t be surprised at how much you will need, and the rustling sound it will make when you move in bed. Such practice may be linked to the legend that the Virgin Mary’s bed was lined with this herb, hence the name “Our-Lady’s bedstraw.” This herb is also used in cheese making. The extract of the tops are used in cheese making, the tops contain an enzyme that curdles mild. The generic name, Galium, derived from the Greek gala, means “milk”. Sometimes the extract was mixed with calf rennet, a curdling agent derived from the fourth stomach of calves. An acidic beverage made by distilling the tops in water dates at least to the seventeenth century.
The tops also yield a yellow dye that has been used to color butter, wool and silk yarn, woman’s hair ( in 15th century England) and cheese, especially English Cheshire cheese.
The first-century Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed an ointment of bedstraw to treat burns, and the seventeenth century English herbalist Culpeper found it useful for treating children’s skin disorders. Folk practitioners recommended the use of Our-Lady’s bedstraw in a footbath or as a tea to be used as a diuretic, laxative, or treatment for epilepsy. NO SCIENTIFIC STUDIES SUPPORT THOSE USES, however, and Our-Lady’s bedstraw today is known principally as a pretty landscape plant.
Unlike the shade-loving sweet wood-ruff, Our-Lady’s bedstraw thrives in bright sunshine and tolerates dry soil. It is hardy in Zones 3 thru 8. To counter its invasive tendencies, plant this herb in a bottomless pot or in a spot where it won’t matter if it spreads. If it flops over, you can prop it up with twigs, or a peony hoop. Fresh seeds germinate more readily than those that have been dried or stored. You can easily increase your stock by dividing established plants in spring or early fall.
Making A Dye
To make a yellow dye: harvest the flowers tops when in full bloom, simmer them in water for 30 to 60 minutes, then strain the dye liquid.
To make a red dye: dig the roots of the established plants in late fall. Wash, then chop them into small pieces. Simmer in water to cover for an hour, let stand overnight, and strain the liquid. You may repeat this step, using fresh water, until no more dye is released. Four plants yield enough roots to dye 4 ounces of wool.