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Cleavers

by Roger Klinger

Some plants seem to have a sense of humor; cleavers are among these green wonders of nature’s diverse bounty that has been in my life for nearly 40 years now, and they always amuse me. My first introduction to cleavers (Galium aparine) was on a hike in Virginia with a good friend who was my first wild foods mentor. Mark reached down and picked a long vine-looking plant that was growing at the edge of the woods and threw it at me —it immediately stuck to my jeans and I laughed out loud. When I looked more carefully at the plant, I noticed its symmetrical beauty and whirled leaves and felt the rough texture of the tiny, nearly invisible little hooks; it was sticky but not piercing like thorns, and it clung to my arm, my shirt or pants.

I had seen this plant many times but hadn’t paid attention, which is what happens when humans like my younger self see some plants as “weeds” that just seem to grow everywhere. And then we wake up, look more closely and learn that the common little plant we once ignored has an amazing history and a wide variety of uses. Nature is truly wondrous in its intricate complexity and marvelous adaptations that feed its ongoing drive to propagate our planet’s varied life forms, and cleavers are a good example of the inherent ingenuity within the natural world.

Other common names for cleaver are Goose grass (geese love to eat it), everlasting friendship, stickjack, and goosebill. The Greeks called it “man loving” due to its clinging tendencies. Cleavers are in the Rubiacae family, the same family as coffee, and the small fruits can be dried and roasted as an herbal coffee substitute, although I haven’t tried this yet.

The genus name Galium comes from the Greek word meaning “milk,” and the species name aparine means “to seize” because another relative of this plant was used to curdle milk. Cleavers are herbaceous plants with square stems that can reach three-four feet with whorls of six-eight narrow leaves, tiny star-shaped white flowers, and small globular fruits that also have hooks on them to stick to animals and help spread the seeds. Cleavers are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa, but have naturalized throughout much of North America. The young spring leaves and stems can be eaten as a cooked potherb vegetable and are also fully edible raw, but the texture and abrasive, prickly nature are a turn-off for many folks, myself included, other than a nibble here and there of an especially tender new shoot.

Historically cleavers have been used as medicine to treat a variety of skin ailments, minor wounds and burns. The plant material would be crushed and made into a pulp and used to treat poisonous bites and stings or made into a poultice and applied directly to the skin areas. Cleavers have also been brewed into a tea and used as a facial toner or ingested to support the lymphatic system, as it is believed to be a blood purifier and help remove toxins from the body. There are also many references to the tea being used to treat dandruff and itchy scalp conditions. One of the more interesting references I have found is using cleaver tea as a natural deodorant.

In Ancient Greece, Dioscorides made reference to Greek shepherds gathering the barbed stems together and using them as a coarse, rough sieve to strain milk, and the same usage is reported in Sweden. Throughout Europe, people would dry the foliage and use it to stuff mattresses as the clinging hairs on the stems make it easy to stick together and form large bundles that would hold together well and form a good bedding straw. The roots of cleavers also can be used to make a red dye.

Cleavers thrive along woodland borders and in waste places with disturbed soil, and as a result often show up in people’s gardens. As the plants become older, since they are laced with silicon, they become too tough for humans to eat. Several Canadian provinces list cleaver as a noxious weed and in the US, a number of states including New York and Maryland prohibit or restrict the sale of cleaver seed. However, I have never heard of anyone ordering and growing cleaver, since it seems to grow quite well on its own. The reality is that it’s a plant that is here, likes where it grows and is likely to do quite well despite any attempts to restrict its presence in our lives. So one might as well learn to enjoy it, use it in sautés as a cooked green and celebrate its unique beauty and varied uses.

A favorite saying about cleavers in the wild is that “you don’t find cleavers, they find you,” and once it finds you, it grabs hold of you and is an excellent hitchhiker. It’s a plant well worth knowing, whether you investigate it on your own or if you happen to come home one day and find a little patch of cleaver clinging to the bottom of your britches!

Contact Roger at rogerklinger@charter.net