Cleavers in Springtime
Updated: Feb 17
by Frances Watkins, Medical herbalist Cleavers or Galium aparine L. belongs to the bedstraw genus in the madder family (Rubiaceae). In England it is a common native annual which grows in moist soil in the hedgerow, scrub and woodland or like me, you may have an abundant supply of it in the garden! The plant has many synonyms including catch grass, clivers, goosegrass, robin-run-in-the-hedge and sticky willie. As children we were fascinated by its tenacious ability to adhere to almost anything including clothing, fur and skin; it does this with hooked trichomes on both the leaves and stem.
Cleavers has been used medicinally for thousands of years and was considered by the Physicians of Myddfai to be one of their most important native medicinal plants (Barker, 2001). Dioscorides recommended the plant mixed with lard as an ointment for scrophulous swellings and good for snake and spider bites when drunk with wine. He also said shepherds used it to strain the milk from any hair (Beck, 2011). Today, herbalists use cleavers on its own as an infusion or juice of the aerial parts or as part of a compound remedy in a tincture tailored to the individual. The plant is not as effective when used dried which is why fresh plant material is preferred. Cleavers can help dissolve kidney stones, used to treat urinary tract infections; stimulate the lymphatic system and reduce enlarged lymph glands; ease pain in arthritic and gouty joints and help clear chronic skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis.
Hatfield (2007) says the plant was traditionally used in folk medicine as a springtime remedy; the fresh juice or strong plant infusions applied externally to clean cuts and as a poultice for wounds and leg ulcers and internally, for coughs and colds.
Interestingly, a patient case study published in the British Medical Journal (Quinlan, 1883) gives an account of fresh cleavers applied as a poultice on chronic leg ulcers three times a day and within a month, the size of the ulcers had reduced by 50%. The author also suggested the plant material could be stored as silage in the same manner as cattle feed as it was only possible to harvest the plant during the growing season. Other uses include anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and cardioprotective effects with accounts of the juice used to treat breast cysts and reduce fluid retention. In a study by Atmaca et al., (2016) a methanol extract of cleavers was shown to have potential anticancer effects against breast cancer cells without impairing normal breast epithelial cells.
Traditionally cleavers was mixed with nettles and other herbs including dandelion and burdock in homemade spring beers and given to the elderly for gout and arthritic complaints. A simple infusion is made by pouring boiling water over a handful of young leaves and stems in a tea pot and leaving to brew for 10 -15 minutes before drinking. To make a cold infusion, cover the cut herb with spring water and leave it to steep overnight and drink 1-3 cups throughout the following day. Can be stored 24 hours in the fridge although best drunk the day after steeping. The juice of the plant is obtained by finely cutting the young leaves and stems before squeezing or passing the plant through a juicing machine. You can also preserve the juice by freezing in ice cube trays. Alternatively, mix the juice with an equal amount of honey or vegetable glycerine and store in a sterilised screw top jar in the fridge. Barker (2001) says the juice should be taken in large doses of 1-3 teaspoons up to 3 times daily. Young cleavers can also be chopped and added to salads, made into a pesto with garlic and walnuts or blended in a smoothie alone or mixed with other herbs and fruits. Later in the season the plant becomes quite tough and is best chopped and added to soups and stews or boiled/steamed/stir-fried and buttered as a vegetable.
Please note: When foraging from the wild make sure you have identified the plant correctly and if unsure, ask some one who does know before you harvest. Only take what you need for personal use, leaving plenty of plants behind to grow for the future.
Atmaca, H., Bozkurt, E., Cittan, M. and Tepe, H.D. (2019). Effects of Galium aparine extract on the cell viability, cell cycle and cell death in breast cancer cell lines. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 20 (186), pp. 305-310. DOI: 10.1016/j.jep.2016.04.007
Barker, J., (2001). The medicinal flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe. Kent: Winter Press. Beck, L., (2011). Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbu de materia medica. 2nd ed. Translated by L. Beck. Hildesheim: Olms. Hatfield, G., (2007). Hatfield's herbal the secret history of British plants. London: Penguin Books.
Quinlan, F.J.B., (1883). Galium aparine as a remedy for chronic ulcers. British Medical Journal, 1, pp.1173-74. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.1.1172.1173