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.
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).
Habitat and distribution
Cultivated land, hedgerows, scrub.
Parts used for food
Stems, leaves and seeds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.