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Sunday, 24 April 2011

A greener clean

When I was researching The Lady's Slipper I came across a reference to people cleaning pewter in the 17th century with Goosegrass. The plant was apparently very common in this area, and used in vast quantities. Try as I might I could not see much of it in the hedgerows and concluded it must sadly be rarer now in these parts than it was back then - until just this week.

I have inherited a beautiful garden from the previous owners of my house, full of beautiful tulips and apple blossom. We have had sunny weather the last few weeks so I have taken to weeding. And which is the most common weed in my garden? Yes, Goosegrass. It's everywhere, and as fast as I pull it up, the more of it sprouts.

We recently found an old pewter tankard in the loft which I wanted to keep out on display as it lists all the Kings and Queens of England from Alfred the Great (871 - 904) right up to Elizabeth II (1952 -) -nearly 60 of them! It was looking a bit old and tarnished so I thought I'd better try out the pewter polishing the old way. So here is a picture of the tankard before.......and after! The 17th century folk must have been at it for hours, because I polished quite vigorously and I have to say the Goosegrass didn't do much except disintegrate and make my fingers green. I can imagine Ella the maid's frustration at the amount of effort this might take!

It did give me an interesting sense of how much longer people must have taken over their daily chores though in those days, and led me to take a little more time in peeling the potatoes today by taking the whole bowl into the garden so I could take my time and enjoy the view - rampant Goosegrass and all.

You might know goosegrass by another name  - Cleavers, Clithers, Robin run-in-the-grass, Burweed, Loveman, Mutton chops, Clite, Clide, Clitheren, and Goosebill, from the sharp, serrated leaves, like the rough-edged mandibles of a goose. In the 19th century Goosegrass used to be known by the nickname of Beggar's lice, from clinging closely to the garments of passers by and because the small burs resemble these creatures. It is also known to some as Harriff, or, Erriff, from the Anglo-Saxon "hedge rife," a taxgather, or robber, because it plucks the wool from the sheep as they pass too. 

Below - cleaning pots and pans in 17th century Holland - can't spot any Goosegrass here, and they both look quite cheerful, in fact the woman on the right looks like she might be singing as she works. Notice the fine ladies in the backgound, gossiping away whilst the work goes on.


  1. Hi Deb A very interesting posting. I've got Goosegrass growing in my garden too. I wonder if they mashed the goosegrass up into a pulp and rubbed it on to clean it.

  2. Hi Jamara, my source didn't give xact details, but you could be right. The chemical composition of Goosegrass includes citric and tannic acid, and it is astringent - used in herbal medicine, so perhaps mashing it up a bit more might help.