Eatin' Wild Series: Cleavers
Eatin' Wild is my series of articles on edible or medicinal plants that grow wild around us, including edible weeds that you may have been spraying or mowing over. This installment of the series covers a great spring/summer edible weed that is both food AND medicine!
Just this week I found a fantastic wild edible growing on my property for the first time this year. I was so excited that I shot a quick video to share a few details about this highly useful weed known as cleavers.
Cleavers (Galium aparine) have a lot of nicknames, but the ones that I hear most commonly are sticky weed, sticky plant, goosegrass, or velcro weed. One touch of the leaves or stems, and you'll quickly learn why cleavers have picked up these monikers. Tiny hooks on the leaves and stems cling to just about everything, including your skin, your clothes, your pets, and even itself. Once the plant seeds, well, they'll cling to you too. But there are a lot of good reasons not to mow this sticky plant down! Read on to learn more about cleavers, and how you can use them for food and medicine.
Foraging for Cleavers
Check out my video to see cleavers up close and hear a few details about what you can do with this useful, edible weed. Then look around your backyard! Cleavers are a common weed, capable of growing into large, mat-like stands if you let them. They start popping up in milder climates in late winter, and are usually growing prolifically and flowering by spring. Cleavers are considered a pasture plant, and don't seem to be too fussy about soil type. Here in my home state of Texas, where the sun can shine down a bit aggressively, I've noticed that cleavers really like having something cool to lean against. I often find them growing against foundations, brick walls, or alongside decks and fences. The cleavers in my yard are growing against the deck.
How to Recognize Cleavers
Cleavers grow in long stems that can reach 6 feet in length if they're extremely happy. The stems tend to be prostrate unless they're sticking to a substrate that lends verticality, like a fence or wall. Look for:
Cleavers tend to grow in mats, and the stems will actually cling to each other as they grow. These are usually prolific growers. Stands of cleavers can get quite large. and they are often sprayed as noxious weeds. You, however, would never do that, right? Clip them down to a size that you can live with, and be sure to leave some blooms to go to seed! Cleavers are actually an annual, so you will need to let it seed in order to have it return in the next year. Grab what you've harvested, and read on to see what you can do with your haul!
How to Use Cleavers for Food
Nutritionally speaking, cleavers' biggest claim to fame is probably how very high they are in Vitamin C and other antioxidants, which research studies have backed up. All parts of the plant are edible, if not always palatable.
Cleavers can certainly be eaten raw; however, those tiny hairs that I mentioned earlier give it a slightly unpleasant mouth-feel, and can be an irritant for some. You can get around that by adding only the young leaves to your salads. They don't yet have the hooks that will be their hallmark in maturity. You can also add raw cleavers to smoothies and fresh-expressed juices. In fact, many consider the juice of cleavers to be one of the most potent ways to access their nutritional and tonic benefits. Juice can be made by simply squeezing the living daylights out of the plant matter using a length of cheesecloth, or by running it in bunches through a juicer. Cleavers hold a surprising amount of water, though some choose to gently heat their cleavers in a little water before squeezing it (include the water in your final product) in order to promote the release of nutrients. You only need to take a very small amount, 1-2 teaspoons 2-3 times per day, of the pure juice to enjoy benefits!
You can also cook cleavers or use them in teas and infusions. Cooking them gets rid of the little hairs, and they'll function nicely as a side green. They have kind of a clean, green taste to me. Ways to cook cleavers include boiling, adding straight to soups & stews, and sauteing, though you may prefer just the leaves for this. The stems can be stemmy without a longer cooking time. The heat won't destroy the Vitamin C, but let me caution you about boiling cleavers: Vitamin C readily leaches out into water, being water soluble, so if you boil your cleavers, you are certain to lose some of its nutritional content into the discarded water. Soups, stews, teas, and infusions are better options, since they actually take advantage of the leaching to extract out the Vitamin C for consumption.
Speaking of teas and infusions, they are also very easy to make. You can whip up a cup of fresh cleaver tea by adding about 1-2 tbsp of the fresh herb to 12 ounces of hot water. Go for a long steep, about 10 minutes, and voila! Cleaver tea. It has an herby, green taste, maybe even too green for some! If that's you, then feel free to combine it with other herbs more to your taste. If you're using dried herb to make your tea, then halve the amount that you add to your infuser. Quick note: Yup, you certainly can harvest a big bunch of cleavers and dry them for use throughout the year. In fact, that's a great idea!
Cleavers, dried or fresh, can be added to full-strength infusions as well. If you're a client of mine, or have dipped a toe into the herbal world, then you'll recognize these as preparations involving a quantity of herbs (usually dried, usually nourishing in nature, i.e. full of vitamins & minerals) added to a quart-sized mason jar, covered in boiling water, and steeped for at least 4 hours. These are a staple of many, many herb lovers' diets, and a great way to increase your vitamin, mineral, and water intake. Infusions will also make accessible some of the medicinal constituents of the plant.
How to Use Cleavers for Medicine
Galium aparine has been in use in herbal medicine for hundreds of years, maybe longer, considering how widespread this plant is across the globe. Cleavers are astringent, and energetically a cooling plant. They are primarily used as a vulnerary herb and a tonifying lymphatic mover.
Vulnerary refers to wound care. Cleavers have long been used to address minor wounds, minor burns, and rashes, including those brought about by plants like poison oak or poison ivy. They are also cooling and soothing to skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. For this reason cleavers often find their way into balms and salves, either via oil infusion or by drying the herb and adding it powdered to a balm. You can create a wound wash or fomentation to bathe the wound in, or use fresh herb in a poultice directly over the affected area.
Cleavers for Coffee?
Yup, you heard me right. Some use cleavers as a coffee substitute. Cleavers are in the Rubiaceae family, along with the coffee plant. As such, the ground seeds have picked up a reputation for being a decent, lower caffeine replacement for coffee. I myself have yet to find a true replacement for coffee. Nothing tastes like coffee but coffee to me; however, since it's a thing, I share it here.
Health Warnings for Cleavers
So far, science has not uncovered any contraindications between cleavers and pharmaceutical medications. Some do experience contact dermatitis from coming into contact with this plant. Most don't, but there is a small risk to be aware of, especially if you are very skin reactive.
The Rules of Foraging
If you've read any articles from my Eatin' Wild series, then you'll have already seen my version of the Rules of Foraging, a basic set of guidelines to use when harvesting wild plants. They bear repeating, though, so I'll share them below just in case.
Before you head outside with your clippers and a basket, let's discuss wild foraging etiquette. Responsible foragers always adhere to a few rules when they go out to collect wild edibles or medicinals.
Health Disclaimer: You own yourself. Always do your research when trying out new foods, especially if you have a health condition, and/or are on prescription medications. Wild edibles are nutrient dense. Most of us are not used to that. Go slowly, not only to test for reaction, but also to give your body a chance to accustom to the richness of wild edibles. No information on this website should be considered medical advice, nor should the information here be considered a complete listing of all possible plant components or dangers. Neither Prairie Hawk Botanica nor Jennifer Capestany will be responsible for injury.
Author: Jennifer Capestany
Jennifer is a clinical herbalist and health coach, specializing in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Her interest in plant medicine led Jennifer to spend years studying herbology, physiology, and nutrition. She works one-on-one with her clients via her herbalist and health coaching business, Prairie Hawk Botanica. Jennifer lives on a homestead in rural Texas with her husband, 2 children, and various animals. In her spare time she loves to be in her large herb and vegetable garden. Sharing herb knowledge and her love of natural healing with others is her calling.
I'm Jennifer Capestany, a clinical herbalist and freelance writer with a practice in North Texas. Helping people deal as naturally as possible with rheumatoid arthritis, chronic illness and other chronic conditions is my calling.