Here's a puzzle. What single thing can get rid of moths and fleas, help curdle cheese, work as a coffee bean substitute, be used to make mattresses, provide red dye and work as a medicine for several illnesses?
Our ancestors worked out that the flower Lady's Bedstraw could provide all these. This soft, sweet-smelling, pale primrose, delicate flower which grows in drifts in meadows and banks, rocky corners and verges was an important domestic herb. It was strewn around to deter fleas and give the house a fragrant scent of fresh mown hay. Its formal name is Galium Verum - Gala is Greek for milk and its flowers were used instead of rennet to make milk curdle. If you were fortunate enough to be born a lady or gentlemen you would sleep on a palliasse stuffed with this sweet smelling dried flower. If born a servant, filling the mattresses might have been one of the jobs allotted to you.
Lady's Bedstraw at St Peter's, July 2021. Photo: A Rae
It was believed that childbirth was made easier by lying on a bed of bedstraw. One legend relates how The Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus on a bed of lady's bedstraw and bracken. The bracken refused to acknowledge Jesus and lost its flower, while the bedstraw bloomed in recognition and turned from white to gold.
Used for coffee and tea substitutes (tea can be bought in Holland and Barratt), the leaves, stems and flowers of this versatile plant were also used to make medicine. It was used long ago to treat skin rashes and allergies, gout, urinary tract problems, kidneys and epilepsy and has some limited uses in medicine today.
Lady's Bedstraw is one among the richly diverse wildflowers that have been growing for centuries in Forncett St. Peter's churchyard.