Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cleavers - Herb of the Week

)updated May 2017)

March 28 is National Weed Day (it might be weeding day, but it is March so I am not weeding anything yet!), so I decided to make the herb of the week a plant you would not grow but may harvest and use as it grows wild and is considered by many to be a weed.

I remember having a lot of fun with cleavers or “velcro weed” as a child.  This wonderful sticky, annual plant often grows wild and prolifically against fences, in hedgerows, crop fields and beneath trees.  we used to play in the farm field next door grabbing it and throwing it at each other.  My sister would make messages on my back.  Usually "Bite me!"  Back then I was not into the medical properties of anything, let along a playful weed, but recently I came across information on Urban Herbology  that details its use as a as a cleansing herb.

Cleavers (Galium aparine) - Herb of the Week

Cleavers (Galium aprine)
The pinnate-shape leaves of Galium aparine grow in whorls of 4 to 8 around its stem, which can get up to 6 feet long.  The plant’s sticky nature comes from tiny hooked hairs growing out from the leaves and ridges of the stems.  The clever cleaver uses the  sticky hairs to grow upward as it can cling to other plants, as well as fences and trees.  The seeds set in small sticky hairy burrs that will also cling to your clothing, aiding in seed dispersal. These seeds can lay dormant for up to 7 years, meaning the plant is generally unaffected by drought or other unsavory conditions.

Cleavers must spread seed as it is an annual, dying out entirely during winter, to spring anew each Spring  Native to the grassy savanna along river banks in Canada, the eastern half of the U.S., and along the Pacific Coast. It does produce a taproot, so can be hard to eradicate during the growing season.  The stem is slender, weak and square. Small, white or greenish-white flowers appear from May to September. The plant exudes a strong, honey-like odor, but actually has a bitter flavor.  

The herb is said to promotes lymphatic flow, to be cooling, soothing and cleansing. It is best harvested when young and prolific.  Depending on your weather this can be as easy as March, but it becomes most abundant after the first week of summer.  It can be added to salads, though the hairs give an interesting effect, or cooked in a little water as a leaf vegetable. 
If gathering it for making a medicinal tincture, you should strive to collect the plant in July, for a spring tonic gather as easily in the year as you can when shoots are still young.

Because it grows wild, Native Americans of the Eastern U.S and Midwest used it as a medicine for the treatment of gonorrhea.
Sweet Woodruff

PLEASE NOTE: As ever, when harvesting from the wild you should use a good field guide, be aware of look-a-like plants.  I think the most likely plant to be confused with Cleavers (Galium aparine)  is Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum).  In the same family they have a similar whorl of leaves and small white flowers that appear in May, 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 helpful herb for insect and moth repellents, but unlike 
Cleavers it contains substances which can be poisonous in very large doses. Sweet Woodruff is also a perennial that will stay close to the same area year after year, while annual Cleavers get spread around because of the sticky stems and seeds.

Cleavers is often used by herbalists for cystitis, swollen glands, swollen breasts, PMS, mild lymphedema, prostatitis and as a diuretic for a general spring clean.  Susun Weed reports that it can also be helpful in reducing allergic reactions.  Due to it’s gentle diuretic cleansing action, Galium aparine often also helps to ease some skin disorders such as psoriasis, eczema and gout.

Historically cleavers are seen as a wonderful cleansing remedy, clearing toxins from the system and reducing heat and inflammation. Cleavers has a diuretic action, aiding elimination of wastes, and also acts to enhance the lymphatic system, promoting lymphatic drainage of toxins and wastes so that they can be excreted via the urinary system. These actions combine to make cleavers  excellent for fluid retention, skin problems,. Including eczema, psoriasis, acne, boils, abscesses, urinary infections. urinary stones and gravel, arthritis and gout. Cleavers can be used for lymphatic problems, such as lymphatic congestion and swollen lymph glands, congestion of the breasts, and is said to have anti-tumor activity, particularly when in the skin or breasts, and the lymphatic system.

Cleavers makes an excellent facial wash as it tightens the skin. For those with the customary wrinkles and sags that come with age, making a wash with this herb might be something to consider (see below.)

Cleavers cools heat and inflammation in the body, seen in conditions such as cystitis, arthritis, inflammatory skin problems and digestive problems. Its bitter properties stimulate liver function and enhance digestion and absorption. A cooling drink made of cleavers was traditionally given every spring to "clear the blood".

The fresh leaves can be applied to cuts or wounds to check bleeding and speed healing. The juice or an infusion can be used to bathe varicose ulcers, or the fresh leaves can be made into a poultice. You can also blanch the fresh leaves and add to soups or as a substitute for spinach in quiche or similar recipes.

I thought about picking some to put on the sunburn I got out bike riding in Wisconsin this past weekend, where I took this picture.  But I decided to gather it at home instead.

Cleavers tea (version 1)3 heaped tablespoons of dried or fresh herb
2 cups boiling water

Allow to stand for 10 minutes.  Allow to cool.  When cool take mouthful doses throughout the day.

Cleavers tea (version 2)
1 tsp cleavers
1 tsp. uva ursi
1 cup boiling water

Place herbs in water and allow to steep for thirty minutes then drain. Add honey to sweeten if the tea is too bitter.

Tincture of Cleavers2 cups 100 proof vodka or Everclear4 to 5 feet of Cleaver plant material

Harvest the top two thirds of plant when in flower or setting seed (July is a great time.) Crush some of the plant in mortar and pestle with a bit of vodka, then place in a glass jar and cover with more alcohol.  Allow to steep for 5 to 6 weeks, remembering to shake daily.

UPDATE: For details on making a tincture, see my post from March 2017

To use: According to Urban Herbology you can take a dose of 0.5ml – 1ml in a glass of water a few times daily when called for.

Cleavers Facial Wash 
This wash will help to tighten up loose skin folds. Gradual results should become evident within 2 weeks. You should begin to see a brightening and smoothing of skin making it look less tired.

1 Quart water
3 1/2 Tbls. Dried cleavers

Bring quart of water to a boil. Remove from heat and add dried cleavers. Cover and steep for 40 min. 

To Use: Soak a wash cloth or small terrycloth hand in the chilled tea, then wash face and neck or apply as a compress over face for up to 10 minutes several times a day.



  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Some herbs are perrenials and grow in the wild with no need for me to cultivate them and some I grow from seeds because they are annuals. But my garden is so long established that if I want more plants, I divide rather than having to start new plants from seed.


  3. Hi do you know how to harvest the seeds from the chaff. Sticky little fellows!!! Graham Australia

    1. I have frozen the plant stalks and stripped the seed when it is frozen, takes about an hour in the freezer. That makes them less"prickly."

  4. Cleavers will turn milk to yoghurt.Warm the milk to body temperature and stir the cleavers through, sap from the stems will set the milk. also known as Turkish yoghurt plant. And yes, anyone know the answer to Grahams request?

  5. I believe you mean Galium Verum (Lady's Bedstraw), a related plant with a vegetable rennin for curdling milk into cheese. I tried it with Cleavers once to be sure and had no success.

  6. I enjoyed an edible wild herb walk and learnt that I had so much I could eat from my farm. Its exciting and we have so many cleavers.

  7. Love your article - thank you for sharing :-)
    I'm harvesting cleavers for the first time today and keeping an eye on the plants from time to time to see how they mature. Love the scent too. :-)
    Would it be OK if I share your article on my Facebook page?

  8. You may share on Facebook if you like! Thanks for asking

  9. Harvested Galium aparine for first time today, steeping for tea. I'm on five Rx meds, so using cleavers to stimulate liver function to help cleanse toxins from my system. Thanks for this helpful info.

  10. I'm looking to buy Cleaver seeds, any idea where?

    1. You can obtain cleavers seeds as well as just about any unique variety of herb from Strictly Medicinal Seeds (previously Horizon Herbs). If you call them (541-846-6704) or go to their website you can order from there or request a catalog be sent to you via mail at no charge.

  11. This is a wild plant and it is rare that the seed is sold, so My suggestion is a seed saver organization or swap. Most people find collecting the sticky seed hard to harvest, so the seed is uncommon.

  12. Bring one quart of water to a boil. Remove from heat and add 3-1/2 tbsp. of dried cleavers. Cover and steep for 40 min. Wash the face and neck often. Packs consisting of a wash cloth or small terrycloth hand towel soaked in the tea, lightly wrung out and then applied to the entire facial area for up to 10 minutes several times a day should help to tighten up loose skin folds.

    1. My late husband was a medical herbalist/homeopath and treated me with a tincture he made of Cleavers, but also equal amount of Uva Ursi (or "Bearberry") and the cystitis fire was extinguished in as soon as 10 seconds!

    2. That is awesome. I have yet to use Uva Ursi in any way, as I do not grow my own. Thanks for the recommendation.

  13. I didnt know it had so many beneficial uses. my chickens love to eat it.

  14. Thank you. I noticed this plant growing along the bank above me garden but had no idea what it was other then it kept sticking to me when I was weeding. I'm excited to harvest some this spring.

    1. My SIL found it on her property this spring and is excited to use it too! Glad you discovered it!

  15. Does anyone know of a way to use it to grow hair? Would I just drink the tea? I read someplace, not sure where at this time, that it could be used to wash your hair. How would I go about doing this?


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