It doesn’t have the same superstar status as turmeric or echinacea, but cleavers (Galium aparine), also known as clivers, goose grass, bedstraw, sticky weed, sticky willy, or velcro weed, may be a hidden gem in the world of herbal medicine. Part of the same botanical family as coffee, Rubiaceae, cleavers has been used in Europe for many years. So what is it, and how can you use it?
Cleavers is an annual herb, with relatively weak stems that often grow taller than one metre giving it a spindly appearance. Its has four sided square stems, and features sticky hook shaped “hairs” on the ridges and around leaf nodes that cling together like velcro. It's said that velcro was developed after studying the clinging properties of Cleavers!
The long, thin leaves grow in whorls of six (or occasionally eight), and are two to seven centimetres long. Its small, white flowers grow in groups of one to three on each node, which give way to small (4-5mm) fruits covered in hooked hairs.
Cleavers is native to Europe and Central Asia, but has spread to other regions of the world, including Australia where it has a “naturalised” status.
The aerial parts, meaning the leaves, stem, flowers and fruit, are used depending on the specific indication.
Cleavers is known for its diuretic and detoxifying properties in traditional herbal medicine. It has been given in cases of painful or difficult urination; bladder or kidney inflammation; skin complaints, such as psoriasis and eczema; and inflamed, swollen lymph nodes.
Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, describes the top leaves of Cleavers as an ingredient in “spring drinks” to boost detoxification, and Pliny the elder prescribed Cleavers to "keep from fatnesse" 🤣. It is not recommended in cases of too much urination such as diabetes, but is seen as helpful where there is water retention.
Herbalist Susun Weed points out that cleavers’ diuretic effects could make it a helpful remedy for women who experience water retention and sore breasts as part of PMS. Additionally, in France Cleavers has traditionally been used as a poultice for sores and blisters, because of its astringent (drying) effects. Although some people have reported contact dermatitis from the sap, so please spot test a small area of skin before lathering it all over you.
Some of Cleavers’ diuretic effects come from caffeine, so it could leave you feeling better in more ways than one! The whole plant has sometimes been used as a stand-in for tea due to its caffeine content and the fruits/seeds were dried, roasted and drank as a coffee substitute in Sweden for many years. The seeds are quite tiny though so I imagine this would be quite the labour of love. So I definitely am going to have to try it!
There unfortunately hasn’t been a great deal of modern studies on cleavers, which has been overshadowed by other herbs in recent years. However, laboratory research on the phytochemicals in cleavers has found out why it can help balance the immune system. All samples tested in one study were shown to aid the activation of certain immune cells, a necessary step in fighting infections, as the sooner an infection can be resolved, the sooner the inflammatory response can end.
Some of cleaver’s phytochemicals may have antioxidant effects too. Another lab study on various types of extract found that the water soluble constituents of cleavers significantly cut down levels of relevant oxidative free radicals. The damage caused by these free radicals contributes to inflammation, while the protective effect of antioxidants enables tissue healing.
I have only used Cleavers in teas or as a herbal medicine but you can also incorporate it into your food. It can be steamed as this will soften the hooks, but the simplest method of ingestion is blended in a smoothie or made into a tea. It is recommended to only consume Cleavers for a period of 2 weeks at a time though, then take a break for a week or 2 before recommencing.
You could try it as an ingredient in burgers and other foods, such as this recipe adapted from Julia’s Edible Weeds:
500g of your preferred vegetarian protein source, such as lentils or beans (or a mix of both), cooked & drained
1 tablespoon of flax seeds ground or 1 large egg
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Half an onion chopped finely
1 carrot, grated
A handful of finely chopped cleavers tips
3 nasturtium leaves, finely chopped for a peppery kick (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons of coconut oil
Extra oil for frying/baking
Sauté onions in oil on medium heat until tranluscent
Add carrots and herbs and spices and stir until the carrots soften.
Add the lentils or beans and check seasonings. Mash 1/4 of the beans or lentils to help them hold together.
Allow mixture to cool then stir through the flax seeds or egg mixture and shape into balls.
Shallow fry burgers in a fry pan or bake in a medium oven for 20 - 30 minutes.
Let’s share the love for cleavers. If you’ve tried it before, or you’ve just been inspired by this blog to start using it, I'd love to hear about your experience!