Traditional and Modern Use of Cleavers

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.

Common Name

Cleavers.

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, i-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

Cultivated land, hedgerows, scrub.
Cleavers Notebook

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

Cleavers & Aubergine Bake

  • 650g sliced (rounds) aubergine
  • 150g cleavers tips
  • 2 onions (sliced)
  • 2 garlic cloves (chopped)
  • 2 tbsp mixed herbs
  • 1 tin of tomatoes
  • 500ml cheese sauce
  • 2 tsps tomato puree
  • salt
  • water

Slice aubergine, then lightly oil the slices, now grill them for 2 minutes on high until wilted, turning occasionally. Steam fry the cleavers straight from being washed, do not bother to shake dry, then set aside. Sauté the onions and garlic until translucent, then add the tin tomatoes, mixed herbs, a pinch of salt and the tomato puree. Stir and simmer for 15 minutes. In the meantime make up your cheese sauce. When both the sauces are ready, layer a dish with tomato sauce, aubergine, cleavers and cheese sauce, then repeat until all used up finishing with a layer of cheese sauce on top. Pop in the oven at – 200°C, 180°C (fan), gas mark 6 – and bake until piping hot and bubbling, about 30 minutes.

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.

Cautions

There is little data about the plant’s side effects, perhaps due to its limited use in food and medicine. Ask a doctor for advice before using as a herbal medicine, and avoid using during pregnancy or when breastfeeding as a precaution.

About The Author

Robin HarfordRobin Harford is a plant-based forager, ethnobotanical researcher, and wild food educator. He is the author of Plantopedia: The Past and Present Uses of Wild Plants.

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  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.

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