The earth is greening up all around us and for those of us who want to create our own home medicinals, it's never too soon to get started collecting and drying those lovely “weeds” we who know better call herbs. Today I will give you the lowdown on cleavers, an herb that is a very foundational one to have in your herbal medicine chest and makes a delicious cooked green side dish as well. Galium aperine, or cleavers, is an annual herb, which means that when you collect it, you want to leave plants in the collection area to go to seed to produce a crop next year. As a matter of practice, with any herb you are collecting, always leave behind a good patch of whatever you are harvesting. Take a little here and a little there and you will always have your sources remaining strong from year to year.
This plant is identifiable by its whorled, lance-shaped leaves - usually 6- 8 around the stem and a prickly, “sticky” square-shaped stem, which will adhere back upon itself or to just about anything you hold it up against. The little hairs on the stems are hooked, much like the burdock seeds. If you have your children along when you are collecting, they will find this very entertaining. Ancients would weave the stems together to make sieves. There is another plant in the same family - gallium mollugo, or, whorled bedstraw, which also has squared (but hairless) stems and wider, lance-shaped leaves in whorls which can be confused with cleavers.
Same family: galium aperine or cleavers on the right and galium mollugo or whorled bedstraw on the left.
The test that reveals a cleaver plant is always the test of whether or not the plant will cleave! Be aware, also, that some people react to the juice in this plant with a dermatitis when they touch it, but I think that is rare. Later in the season, the flowers produce a bristle-covered fruit which is the bane of all dog owners. This gives the plant another nickname, ‘catchweed’. Supposedly geese also enjoy cleavers, which inspires its other nickname, ‘gooseweed.” I usually find my cleavers throughout the woodlands where I live but you can also find them growing heartily in thicket environments too. They are quite pretty in a delicate way, gracefully drooping as they grow up to a few feet long and timidly offering for our viewing enjoyment a dainty white flower that shows on the stalks from the leaf axils. The plant should be gathered before flowering and dried in the shade.
Cleavers are a lymphatic alterative or tonic, restoring health to an overtaxed lymph structure which is trying to keep your immune system in top shape. I highly recommend reading up on this quiet network that does so much! One of my favorite doctors refers to the lymphatic system as the “Cinderella system”, staying in the shadows, cleaning up all the messes the rest of the body systems make, while really filling the highest and most noble function of enabling the body to fight disease. So anywhere in the body where swollen glands are present - especially tonsillitis or adenoid problems- is a perfect scenario for cleavers to come to aid. A suggested lymph cleansing infusion is this mixture, derived from Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes: 2 parts calendula, 2 parts cleavers, 1 part mullein and 1 part spearmint. If you use about an ounce of herbs to a quart of water and let it infuse overnight, you can be set for an entire day the next day. She suggests drinking 2-3 cups daily for a few weeks to drain the lymph system.
The actions attributed to cleavers are: diuretic, alterative, anti-inflammatory, tonic, astringent, anti-neoplastic, hepatic, laxative, and vulnerary. Cleavers can also bring relief in urinary tract infections and are widely used topically to relieve dry skin conditions, like psoriasis. Cleavers have been used in the treatment of ulcers and tumors and have been used in experimentation with dogs as an agent in reducing blood pressure without slowing the heart or having any other side effects!
The best use of the constituents of cleavers is through infusions or extracting the fresh juice to use immediately. To get the benefits of the citric acid, glycosides, asperulosides and gallotannic acid that this plant has to offer, an alcoholic tincture of the fresh plant can also be prepared and kept long term. Using the dried aerial parts in a tea is the easiest way to use cleavers, soaking a tablespoon of the dried herb for 10-15 minutes and drinking it. Some day I will hopefully have enough experience to write an article on making tinctures, but for now, I just do a folk method of filling a jar with the herb and topping it off with vodka, letting it steep for a few weeks while shaking now and again before finally straining it for storage. There is no way of knowing what the strength of your herb component is to alcohol in these tinctures, but there is a way to do tinctures where you measure things very scientifically with weight and volume and then can know the strength of the resulting tincture.
I will leave you with a fun fact about cleavers: it is a relative of coffee! Supposedly, cleaver seeds, when roasted, can be a caffeine-light substitute, albeit inferior, for coffee. That might be fun to try…. To your good health and enjoyment of what God has made! ~Carin
Disclaimer: Of course we claim no responsibility for your experience with these herbs. Everything we share is for information purposes only and is not to be taken as professional or medical advice. Do your own research! Always consult a professional. Be wise. Consider always the chance of an allergic reaction. We are all unique in body chemistry. We are NOT a medical professionals by any means, however we have saved our family a boatload of annoyance and money by being resourceful and using what is right at our feet – literally. See full disclaimer here.