Narrow-Leaf Bedstraw

Galium angustifolium

male and female Narrow Leaf Bedstraw plants

Narrow-leaf bedstraw (Galium angustifolium) is a plant native to the coastal sage scrub and chaparral of Southern California and northern Baja California. Most of the year, this unassuming plant is easily overlooked, but when in bloom the billowy masses of tiny, cream-colored flowers form an attractive counterpoint to the bright colors of the spring blooms around them. When each flower has become a fuzzy seed, the plants are even more conspicuous.

At any time of the year, narrow-leaf bedstraw can be recognized by the distant whirls of leaves that surround the ridged stem. Both stems and leaves often have the scratchy, grabby feeling of Velcro.

According to one theory, bedstraw gets its common name from a related plant that was used to line the manger of baby Jesus.

Other Common Names:

narrow-leaved bedstraw; chaparral bedstraw

Description 2,4,11,59

Narrow-leaf bedstraw (Galium angustifolium) is a small, multi-stemmed shrub that may grow alone but often scrambles through the branches of larger plants. The stems are four-sided, usually ridged. Leaves are linear, less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) in length, with a small point at the tip. Petioles are absent. Two opposite leaves are accompanied by two leaf-like stipules; together they appear to be wheels of four leaves at intervals along the stem. Stems and leaves may be more or less densely covered with short, firm hairs which give them the sticky feel of Velcro.

Flowers occur in many-branched clusters near the stem ends. Flowers are cream to greenish in color, radially symmetrical and less than 1/8 inch (3mm) in diameter. Sepals are absent. Petals are united into a short tube with 4 (rarely 3 or 5) spreading lobes, often ending in an abrupt point. Male and female flowers are on separate plants. Male flowers have four stamens (rarely three) that alternate with petal lobes. A vestigial pistil is present. Female flowers have one pistil and 4 vestigial stamens. The ovary is inferior and is covered with conspicuous straight white hairs. Two styles, each with a prominent stigma spread outward from a fused base. The clusters of male flowers are often denser than those of female flowers. Narrow-leaf bedstraw is reported to bloom between March and July;7 in the Reserve, the peak flowering period is March – June.1

The fruit is a pair of seeds, covered with dense, radiating hairs, initially white, aging to brownish. Clusters of fuzzy fruits persist into the summer and are as conspicuous as the flowers preceding them.

square stem and whirly green leaves of the Narrow-leaf bedstraw plant
dangling clusters of male flower (10x) under microscope
microscope image of the delicate green male Narrow Leaf Bedstraw flower

Distribution 7,89

Narrow-leaf bedstraw is native to southern California and northern Baja California; it occurs primarily in sage scrub and chaparral below 8,000 feet.

Narrow-leaf bedstraw is commony along the trails on the south side of the Reserve, but when not bearing flowers or seeds, it is inconspicuous and easily overlooked.

Classification 2,11,44,143

Narrow-leaf bedstraw is a dicot angiosperm in the madder family (Rubiaceae). This is the fourth largest family of flowering plants, consisting mostly of tropical and subtropical species. Distinctive characteristics include a two-chambered inferior ovary that produces paired seeds. Familiar plants in this family include coffee, quinine, and gardenia.

The bedstraw genus, Galium, is a large genus with a worldwide distribution. It is distinguished by characteristics of the flower clusters and by paired leaves and leaf-like stipules that together form discrete whirls along the stem.

Four species of bedstraw have been identified in the Reserve.48 Narrow-leaf bedstraw is the most common and the most conspicuous. Eight subspecies of narrow-leaf bedstraw are recognized; ours is ssp. angustifolium.

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
branch of Narrow-leaf Bedstraw covered in small green and pink blossoms
close-up female flower cluster with four green petals and small white hairs
bright green male flower clusters in dry sticks

Ecology

There is little information specifically about the ecology of narrow-leaf bedstraw, but it has several characteristics shown to be adaptive in other species of the coastal sage scrub. The stiff hairs on the leaves and stems are similar to those of fiesta flower and they may assist the bedstraw in scrambling through neighboring vegetation, as they are thought to do for fiesta flower. The same stiff hairs on the seeds may allow them to hitch a ride on the fur of a rabbit or ground squirrel.

Like the seeds of many species in the Reserve, germination of bedstraw seeds is stimulated by fire.170 For some species, like wart-stemmed ceanothus, the heat of the fire breaks down an impervious seed coat. For other species, such as narrow-leaf bedstraw, their seeds respond to chemicals released by charred wood.

microscopic image of horizontal green stem with stiff white hairs
cluster of Narrow-Leaf Bedstraw plants in full bloom on the Rios trailhead
seed clusters white with pinkish brown centers

Human Uses

The Kumeyaay boiled narrow-leaf bedstraw into a tea to treat diarrhea. The plant was gathered when green and blooming, then dried and stored for future use.16

The entwined masses of stems and leaves were formerly used for bedding.59,71 Some think this resulted in the common name “bedstraw”. Others believe the name came from one species of Galium that filled the manger of the baby Jesus.23

blooming green and pink blossoms
puffy white seed clusters with small pink blossoms in the middle
collection of white puffy seed cluster

Interesting Facts

The genus name, Galium comes from the Greek “gala” which means milk after a species of English bedstraw that was used for curdling milk.21,59

small green male flower clusters
small pink and green blossoms surrounded by fluffy white hairs
male green and pink bedstraw flower and buds

Photo Gallery