Most gardeners see cleavers as a nuisance weed, climbing and winding its way through plants, involving the laborious pulling out of its clinging, ‘sticky’ shoots. However, it can be used for both food and medicine, making it a valued plant in the past, and still used by herbalists today.
Cleavers has various common names, most of them referring to the plant’s clinging habit – catchweed, everlasting friendship, sticky buds, sticky willy, scratch-weed and grip-grass, to name but a few. The Anglo-Saxons called it hedge rife, meaning a tax gatherer or robber, from its habit of plucking wool from passing sheep. In fact, the specific name of the plant, aparine, also refers to this habit, from the Greek aparo, meaning to seize.
The whole plant is edible, making it a useful pot herb in the middle ages. The little hooks on the stems and leaves soften when cooked, and the whole plant is rich in vitamin C. The leaves and stems can be added to soups and stews, and the tender stems can be boiled and served as a vegetable (best topped with butter in my opinion). For culinary purposes cleavers should be picked while still young and before flowering.
The leaves and stems make a cleansing and refreshing spring tonic tea. Cleavers belong to the coffee plant family and indeed, the seeds can be ground and roasted and used to make a coffee substitute.
Cleavers are soothing and cooling, which can have great benefits for irritated skin, used as a compress, poultice or a cool infusion directly washed onto the infected area. An infusion can be used a hair rinse for dandruff prone scalps. It also has deodorant properties and dabbing a cleavers infusion (or simply using the crushed leaves) beneath the armpits can counteract acidic perspiration and sooth the skin of the armpits (especially if combined with lovage). Dabbing a cooled infusion of cleavers onto the affected area can soothe the redness and soreness of sunburn.
Cleavers are cleansing, cooling and detoxifying. They have commonly been used in salves, washes, poultices and compresses topically to treat skin conditions such as itching, seborrhoea, eczema and psoriasis. The crushed leaves can be used as a first aid treatment for stings and bites. The juice of cleavers has long been used to stop bleeding and to treat wounds and ulcers, scalds, burns, sores and blisters.
It a good detoxifying herb eaten or drunk in the spring. With this herb, many of its useful properties are destroyed by heating, so it is best infused in cold water (see below). It supports the lymphatic system, which carries toxins from the cells to the organs of elimination. It is also a diuretic, so this elimination via the kidneys will increase urination. Its old reputation as a weight loss herb comes from the fact it promotes urination, but remember this will just be water loss, and not fat!
The generic name galium is believed to come from the Greek word gala which means ‘milk’, a reference to its use in curdling milk for cheese and yoghurt making. The ‘sticky’ stems were also meshed together to use as a sieve in the dairy.
The plant is commonly called goosegrass, as all kinds of poultry – not just geese – love to eat it, as do cattle, sheep and horses.
The root yields a red dye, when mordanted with alum. (Apparently, birds who eat the root have their bones turn red!)
Cleavers is considered a safe herb, not known to interact with any medications or other herbal supplements. However, as with any substance, an allergic reaction is possible in some individuals; cases of contact dermatitis have been documented. As with all herbs, to be on the safe side, do not use in medicinal amounts during pregnancy or breast feeding or for an extended period.
Cleavers Cold Infusion
Handful of the aerial parts of cleavers, bruised.
1 pint water
Put in a jug or jar. Leave overnight in the fridge. Use within 48 hours.