Cleavers – A Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

Cleavers earned its name thanks to the sticky plant’s tendency to ‘cleave’ to human clothing or animal fur. However, this common weed is also a surprisingly versatile wild edible.

Scientific name

Galium aparine

Family

Rubiaceae.

Botanical description of cleavers

Flowers white, in clusters of 2-5 together, rising from the axils of the leaves. Fruit dry, rough, covered with short hooked bristles, separating when ripe into 2 small, seeded cases. Stem 30cms to 150cms long, square, and slightly thickened at the joints, straggling, light green, the angles rough with hooked prickles leaves narrow or lance-shaped, stalkless, often an inch or more long, rough with hooked prickles, 6-8 in a circle round each joint (node).

Status

Annual. Native.

Habitat and distribution

Cultivated land, hedgerows, scrub.

Parts used for food

Stems, leaves and seeds.

Harvest time

Spring to summer.

Food uses of cleavers

Cleavers was once used as a potherb. It was a useful plant in Medieval kitchens because it could be picked in frost or snow.

The plant’s hook-like bristles soften when boiled. Its chopped leaves and stem can be made into soups and stews. The tender shoots can be boiled and buttered as a vegetable.

Cleavers belongs to the coffee family and its seeds have been ground to make cleavers coffee.

Nutritional profile of cleavers

The whole plant is rich in vitamin C.

Cleavers recipes

Herbal medicine uses of cleavers

Cleavers has long been used as a slimming aid, probably because of its diuretic properties.

Worldwide, cleavers most common use has been as a cleansing herb for treating ailments from kidney and urinary disorders to infections and itching. It is excellent for skin conditions like eczema.

Other uses

In other uses, now passed into antiquity, the sticky seeds were used by lacemakers to enlarge pinheads, and the root itself yielded a red dye.

Here’s an unusual nugget of interest, the plant could turn birds’ bones red if they ate its root.

Safety note

There is little data about the plant’s side effects, perhaps due to its limited use in food and medicine.

Ask a health professional for advice before using herbal medicine, and avoid using during pregnancy or when breastfeeding as a precaution.

Photo identification

References

Duke, J. A. (1992) Handbook of edible weeds. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Hatfield, G. (2008) Hatfield’s herbal: the secret history of British plants. London: Penguin.

Mabey, R. & Blamey, M. (1974) Food for free. London: Collins.

Share Your Experience. Leave A Note For Others

  1. My cat used to come home with them stuck in his fur. Also as a kid we used to throw bits of the plant at eachother, then run like the wind so no one threw it back at us(like a clip out of monsters ink). Now at 47 I’ve found a new use for it. ?

  2. Cleavers make a great smoothie. If you rub vigorously between the palms the juice can be extracted(smoothie machines are easier) I learned this on one of Robin’s amazingly informative foraging walks through a graveyard in York.

  3. Hi I love cleavers in tea so much! It tastes like cucumber and is great for my bladder. I’m wondering if you can dry it ?

    • Yes, you can dry it. I have been told by a herborist that cleaver tea is good for the lymphatic system.

    • I found a bunch of cleavers growing on my property. I want to try making cleaver tea but I’m new to this. How do you make your tea?

  4. just discovered that it is edible. Now I no longer WEED my garden, I forage instead. had a smoothie yesterday and it took some fluid off of my knee. . L

  5. Informative just thought they were weeds pulling the buds off my clothes and dog every spring

  6. Should I remove the seeds if using it in soups or smoothies? Also, how would you use the seeds as a coffee substitute? As is, or dried/roasted/ etc? Thank you for your wonderful, educational article.

  7. If the plant has gone to seed, it is past it’s best and will be very fibrous. The seeds are gathered when they develop a purple hue (although most people gather then when they start going brown) and then dried, toasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute.

    • Hi Robin

      thank you for your informative article. I am just wondering if you have any clever ways of harvesting the cleavers seeds as they seem to be a bit sticky lol. Honestly, we want to try and make the coffee and have just started foraging so any tips would be really appreciated,

      Warmly, Denny

  8. cant say Id ask a doctor for advice on using herbs -they know very little about food let alone plant medicine !

    • I thought this might be to encourage doctors to look up the benefits of wild plants, but they don’t have any time for doing that do they.

  9. Thank you for all this knowledge, I only learned about Cleavers being edible, from watching Miriam Lancewood in New Zealand (‘Woman in the Wilderness’), on Youtube, chatting in her back garden with Wouter Deboot. I won’t discard it as a weed now whilst working in my back garden, but use it for food..

  10. I’ve used dried cleavers and cleavers tincture for years as a lymphatic tonic, especially when suffering from colds, but have just recently started to experiment with it as we have a huge amount growing in our field. So far, I’ve made infusions with the fresh leaves and stems and used them to cleanse my skin and as a final rinse when washing my hair with amazing results! My skin looks and feels great, probably due to cleavers astringent qualities and my hair is really shiny! Currently, I’m making cleavers oil for use as a massage oil and to use as a salad dressing. We’ll see what happens! 🙂 Such great fun and being connected to nature in this way feels wonderful! Thanks for this info, I’ll try your bake recipe next and can’t wait to read your book.

    • How do you make oil from this plant? As mentioned by Denise.
      Great articles, I’m learning so much.

  11. I’m looking to make a cream for itchy skin. Would including cleaver oil help to sooth skin irritation?

  12. I would like to buy some to make tea and I would like to know the best way to use it to get the best benefits for the body. I am new at this but I am excited by what I read.

  13. Useful plant if you sting yourself foraging in/for nettles.. look for cleavers nearby, rub a few strands together in your palm until the juices come out, drain over nettle sting, instantly soothing. Might help for other stings too.

  14. I am part cherokee and my grandmother didn’t t hand down her knowledge of wild foods so I am glad I can learn this way with youall. I live in Oklahoma, but we have clovers growing here too.i appreciate yo<r information on it all. Thank you

  15. Hello :

    I live in the Ouest of France. I harvest some cleaver almost everyday in this period of time. Sometimes I prepare a salad with other wild plants and I cook some for my dogs everyday. They just eat up everything and the baby dog is growing very fast.

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