Nature Walk: A reclining lifestyle

Halberd-leaved tearthumb, White bedstraw and Water chickweed. (illustrations by Anita Barbour)

Halberd-leaved Tearthumb, White Bedstraw and Water Chickweed. (illustrations by Anita Barbour)

About a month ago a friend inquired about the identity of a common roadside plant. It swiftly grows up straight and tall, then collapses, branching and spreading outward over other plants, nearly smothering them. The friend added that it had short leaves arranged in circles around the vining stems, which had no tendrils or any real attachment to the plants upon which it rested.

“Sounds like bedstraw,” I said, adding, “there are many species, but they all spread and rest lightly over other plants, being weak and stringy themselves.”


When the person asked if bedstraws hurt their companion plants, I said no. The habit of using associated plants for physical support is commonplace in most densely vegetated habitats. Probably the most familiar of these are woody vines such as grape, poison ivy and Virginia creeper. Some vines can harm the trees they grow on. Bittersweet vines and grape vines may choke young trees, or weigh them down and even pull them to the ground. Dodder, the thinnest of entangling herbs, sucks the sap out of woody or herbaceous hosts, weakening or sometimes killing them.

Bedstraw and plants with a similar growth habit do little or no damage to the plants they cover or entwine, unless they are especially numerous or dense. Then they may overshade, smother or crush the plants that support them. This is a rare occurrence, and usually all the plants in a marsh, meadow or lush roadside engage to mutual benefit.

Reclining herbs only occasionally make an impression on the roadside walker, yet they are many and varied. Nature lovers will find them within a short walk down any rural road or wild walking trail. Different habitats — wet, dry, shady, sunny, valley, mountain, streamside or lakeshore — offer different species of these lax and languid charmers. In a half-hour’s stroll I found over half a dozen, and chose three to illustrate the diversity of form shown by plants of similar growth habit and lifestyle.

Let’s begin with bedstraw, the object of our observant friend’s curiosity. On my short stroll up the road I noted a number of species of the bedstraw genus Galium. Galium is a genus of the madder family (Rubiaceae), which includes coffee (Coffea), quinine (Cinchona), ipecac (Carapichea ipecacuanha), west Indian jasmine (Ixora), and Gardenia.

The most numerous bedstraw along the road was the common white bedstraw (Galium mollugo), a.k.a. false baby’s breath or wild madder. For a lazy loaf of a plant it’s a daredevil, as it lacks the hooks and spines that help many reclining herbs (including other bedstraws) to hold fast to their supportive neighbors. White bedstraw often goes it alone, the plants embracing each other in surprisingly effective architectures of mutual entanglement with no other species present.

A must-find on my mental list was one of the two trailing smartweeds known as tearthumbs. That fanciful name is no jest; the rows of short spines on the stem act like saws, and can literally tear a thumb run up the stem’s length, or slice an unwary bare ankle treading through a swamp. Smartweeds are members of the knotweed or buckwheat family, Polygonaceae, that includes the invasive pest Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and the buckwheat cereal plant (Fagopyrum esculentum).

I sought tearthumb in wet ditches and marshy patches along the road, expecting the common tearthumb (Persicaria sagittatum) to show its lobed, oblong leaves and toothy stems. Close to giving up hope, suddenly I spotted the less common and more stately and shapely halberd-leaved tearthumb in the last swampy ditch before a long, dry stretch. The road had saved its best for last.

This made two species of herbaceous recliners. The third was back home, along the edge of the gravel driveway near the dog pen, where heavy runoff after every rain creates a mock-wetland with jewelweed and clearweed. With its emerald ear-like leaves and elegant starry flowers, when blooming profusely, water (or giant) chickweed (Myosoton aquaticum) can be a bouquet worthy of a wedding table centerpiece. In a wild setting this exuberant member of the carnation family (Caryophyllaceae) gushes like a green waterfall over tufts of grass and stiff bundles of dried spring hay, or over sedge tussocks in wet meadows. We found it perfectly at home at our back doorstep.

If your wildflower walks have become jaded or routine, you may find the special acquaintance of these gentle recliners simultaneously relaxing and stimulating. Start with easy habitats close to home, and then venture into wilder haunts where you will find other species. Some will be familiar, most likely close relatives of plants you began with. Others will be new to you, members of families and genera previously unmet. If you keep a wildflower life list, these modest but beautiful roadside plants are worthy additions to it.