Cleavers (Galium aparine). The name (Galium) is derived from gala which is Greek for ‘milk’ (cleavers was used to curdle milk for cheese) and the species name ‘aparine‘ comes from the Greek word apara meaning ‘to seize’. Also known as Bedstraw because it was used to stuff mattresses. Cleavers is a persistent, sticky plant that grows profusely and ‘cleaves’ to you by reaching out and grabbing hold, not only to you but also to itself, when you pull it up. Some say the little hooks along the plant’s stem inspired the Velcro cling, while others attribute that to burdock. After winter, our gardens need spring cleaning and renewal. Similarly, our bodies need nourishing and tonifying after being sluggish and stagnant in winter. Cleavers cools, moistens, filters remove waste and get the body moving and flowing.
Cleavers can be cooked like spinach and eaten for vitamins and minerals. Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar recommends adding fresh and tender cleavers to your salads and juices. The younger cleavers are better for food use. The plants become increasingly hooked and fibrous as they age, also the stems (which make up most of the plant) get woody. Dishes that are pureed, such as sauces, soups and pesto work best. You can also make a cleavers vinegar by lightly packing a jar with them, then covering them completely in apple cider vinegar ( white wine vinegar, rice vinegar—really the only vinegar I never use is white distilled). Screw a lid on (vinegar corrodes metal, so either use a plastic lid or place wax paper between the metal lid and jar) and allow to infuse for 6 weeks before straining off the plant matter and returning it to earth/compost. You can make other spring green salad dressings by combining herb vinegar with a drizzle of olive oil. Eat cleavers in very small amounts at first. Cook very thoroughly. If you get a rash when harvesting, don’t eat them at all. If you experience scratchiness in the back of the throat, especially if the plants were very well cooked, don’t eat them. Do a skin patch test.
Cleavers nourishes and moves the lymphatic system; good for tonsillitis, swollen glands, mononucleosis, swollen prostate, sore and tender breasts. It’s a nice addition to those using the violet leaf for lymph and breast issues. Suggested dosage: 2- 3 cups of infusion or 20-40 drops of tincture daily as needed. Cleavers is generally regarded as safe and herbalists suggest can be given to children at a dosage of five to 15 drops three times per day. Cleavers is a very useful remedy for children who tend to get swollen glands around the ears, making them prone to earaches.
Galium aparine tincture calms and nourishes with a taste described as green, bland, sweet, to slightly bitter. Herbalist Matthew Wood describes this plant as a valuable remedy for the nervous system and has used cleavers for spasms, head, spinal and nerve injuries. Wood views cleavers to be a beneficial plant especially for fine-boned, delicate, nervous type people who are fussy, moody, and bored—displeased with small things.
Cleavers is a cooling mildly diuretic (makes you urinate) remedy that reduces heat in the urinary tract, making it wonderful antiseptic herbs for inflamed urinary tissues. It can be valuable for cystitis because cleavers cools and moistens. The herb is also a good remedy for burning urination, weak, tired kidneys, and clearing urinary tract grit, gravel and calcium deposits. Cleavers combines well with goldenrod and nettles which also strengthen and tonify the urinary system: 2-3 cups dried plant infusion or 20-40 drops of fresh plant tincture.
Galiums have a long-standing reputation around the world for healing skin tumors and eruptions. Infused oil can be applied topically to growths. A fresh poultice can be applied in conjunction, 20-40 drops of the fresh plant tincture daily OR 2 cups dried plant infusion per day. Knowing this, I applied fresh cleavers poultice to my golden retriever’s fatty lipoma/ tumor eruptions on her rump. One lipoma was slightly smaller than tennis ball size. If the vet surgically removed it, he felt the lipoma might simply grow back. I applied a warm cleavers poultice at least twice daily for 5-10 minutes. My dog seemed to like the soothing warmth. After 4-5 days, the lipoma erupted and oozed out mattering/pus and a bit of blood. The lipoma resembled a deflated balloon, shrunk to maybe large marble size and healed up. It bothered her much less and never returned to large size.
Use Precautions: Some people develop contact dermatitis, aka a rash or itchy areas of the skin, when touching Cleavers. If you are one of these people, please do not eat this plant. If you have skin allergies, there is an excellent chance you would also be allergic to eating it, and those allergies are more serious. Cleavers may work to stimulate uterine contractions in women, so don’t eat them if you are pregnant, may become pregnant or nursing. Finally, diabetics, people on high blood pressure and/or blood-thinning medications should avoid cleavers.
Always know the plant you are harvesting, be aware of look-a-like plants and use a field guide. Probably the most likely plant to be confused with Cleavers (Galium aparine) is Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) pictured. Both galiums, they have a similar whorl of leaves and small white flowers, but Sweet Woodruff has smooth slightly darker leaves that are a bit more pointed. They also prefer a more shady area to grow in. Sweet Woodruff is a perennial that will stay close to the same area year after year. Cleavers is an annual spread about by its sticky stems and seed. Sweet Woodruff is often used in insect and moth repellents. High dosages are toxic.
Cleavers loses its healing properties on drying and/or heating. So it should be prepared as a fresh plant tea, infusion to drink, vinegar, or preserved in an alcohol menstruum (vodka, brandy, etc). Cleavers infused oil is made with the fresh plant as well.
Cleavers Hot Tea
As Tincture/Alcohol Extract: Cut the top two-thirds of each plant while it is in flower (or setting seeds) and use alcohol (vodka) to make a tincture. The plant is most powerful when fresh or prepared as a fresh alcohol tincture, as the dried plant material loses some potency.
Have a jar, some sharp plant scissors, and 100 proof vodka at hand before you harvest your cleavers. Cut the stalks into 1-2 inch pieces and fill a jar totally full of these cut pieces of leaf, flower, stalk, and even seeds. Fill the jar with vodka. Lid and label/date. Check the tincture during the initial week and add more vodka if necessary. Store out of sunlight and heat—a kitchen cupboard is suitable. Like most tinctures made from fresh plant material, this one will be ready to use in six weeks. Strain out or remove the plant material and return the plant to earth. Tinctures will keep out of direct sunlight and heat. Do not refrigerate.
This one comes from Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal’s wonderful book, Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies, which I would recommend to anyone interested in wildcrafting herbs. Juice fresh cleavers, measure it and add an equal amount of runny honey. Bottle and label. It will last much longer this way and would be a lovely soothing and effective remedy for tonsilitis.
Pineapple-C leavers Tonic
I believe it was Susun Weed or Rosemary Gladstar that I first heard this from. Sweet pineapple mixes with the green energy of cleaver.
Approximately 4 loosely packed cups young cleavers stems and leaves, washed
4-5 cups pineapple juice
1-2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, optional
Loosely fill the blender with cleavers. Add mint leaves and pour pineapple juice over the whole. (Leave some space at the top of your blender to avoid overflow. Run the blender until the mixture is soupy. Sticky stems and leaves of cleavers will clog juicers. Place cheesecloth or coffee filter in a mesh strainer and strain the mixture. It will take some time for all the liquid to drip through. Gather the corners of the cloth and squeeze all the juice out. Return the plant material to earth/compost and retain the liquid. Serve chilled. Makes 4-5 servings.
Cleavers Lemonade Tonic (Kristine Brown of HerbalRootszine)
3 cups chopped Cleavers stems and leaves
1 cup chopped Chickweed stems and leaves (optional)
1 cup lemon juice (about 4 – 6 lemons)
Zest from lemons
1/2 cup honey
1/2 gallon water
1 pinch sea salt
Begin by placing the Cleavers and Chickweed (if using) in a blender. Add a bit of water and blend until you have a puree.
Using a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a Gerber diaper (I never liked them for real diapers but they are great for straining plant materials!), pour the puree through the strainer, gather the ends of the cloth and twist/squeeze until all the juice has been removed from the plant material.
Compost the spent plant material and measure your juice. You will need 1/3 cup of juice. The rest you can save for using in recipes from this month’s issue. Set aside the juice.
Place the zest and 1 cup of water in a saucepan and heat until boiling. Remove from heat and add honey, stirring to dissolve completely. Let steep for 15 minutes.
Pour the honey zest mixture into a 1/2 gallon jar or pitcher. Add the lemon juice, 1/3 cup of Cleavers juice and sea salt.
Add water to fill and stir well. Taste and add more honey if you prefer it sweeter.
Serve on ice.
You have the option of also adding ¼ C. grated parmesan cheese and a Tbsp of lemon juice and lemon zest.
In a food processor, process the cleavers, garlic, nuts, sea salt and other additions until coarsely chopped. Add olive oil and pulse until smooth.
Serve immediately or store in a sealed container or glass jar in the refrigerator.
If freezing, freeze individual portions in an ice cube tray until firm, then transfer to a plastic Ziploc bag or freeze larger portions in a half pint glass jar with lid.
Rosemary Gladstar. Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: 175 Teas, Tonics, Oils, Salves, Tinctures, and Other Natural Remedies for the Entire Family, 2008.
Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal. Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies, 2009.
Deb Soule, Roots Of Healing: Woman’s Book Of Herbs, 1995.
Susun Weed. Healing Wise: A Wise Woman Herbal, 2003.
Matthew Wood. The Book Of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants As Medicine, 1997.