The Cleavers Herb is a sticky sprawling plant long-loved by children (and mischievous adults) for its ability to easily stick to clothing. Similar to burdock seeds, the mature cleavers plant is covered in little hooks that help the plant to grow tall by allowing it to grab on to other plants. It also helps the plant to hitchhike to new and exciting places to spread its seed.
Cleavers is an herb of the spring. Its fresh growth is often one of the first greens to arrive and it offers welcome food and medicine. This is a wonderful cooling and draining medicinal herb, perfect for hot and stagnant conditions.
Cleavers gently moves lymph. Think of it for swollen lymph glands, including tonsils, or swollen glands in the armpits, breasts, and groin. Cleavers can be used for both acute situations as well as long-term stagnations. It is especially called for when the lymphatic stagnation is accompanied by signs of heat – for example, the affected area feels warm to the touch, with redness and/or swelling. Since cleavers comes out in the spring, it is also perfect for the sort of stagnation that builds up from the heavy foods and sedentary times of winter.
There are many historical references to using cleavers for cancer. There are a small handful of in-vitro studies on a couple of Galium species that show promising results for head and neck cancers and breast cancers.1,2,3 To date there have been no human clinical trials involving cleavers in people with cancer.
It is a supportive lymphatic therapy that can be useful for treating long-term debilitating diseases when there is lymphatic congestion and lymphatic tenderness.
Christa Sinadinos, 2012
Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference Class Notes
Cleavers also gets things moving in the urinary system. This diuretic remedy is gentle and safe, even for children. Consider it especially when there are signs of heat, such as scant and scalding urine or bladder inflammation. For urinary tract infections (UTIs), consider pairing cleavers with uva ursi. It was historically used to treat gonorrhea.4
Cleavers can be beneficial in many skin issues and can be used both internally and externally. Burns, including sunburns, can be relieved with the topical application of cleavers, either as a juice or a poultice.
Cleavers’ cooling and moving properties make it a good match for moist skin conditions that weep, especially with signs of heat. Robert Dale Rogers recommends it for psoriasis in combination with burdock root and yellow dock root. It can also be used for acne and boils.
In researching this monograph I came across a case study published in The British Medical Journal written in 1883. It chronicled a patient with severe non-healing leg ulcers that didn’t respond to more common treatments. The doctor and author of the case study decided to try cleavers. He made a poultice out of the fresh aerial growths and applied it to the leg ulcers. The poultices were changed three times a day. He writes, “[Cleavers’] effect in this most unhopeful case was decisive and plain to all. Healthy action ensued, and has since steadily continued; and, after a month of treatment, both ulcers have been reduced to considerably less than half their original size.”5
In addition to its many medicinal virtues, cleavers can be called upon for a variety of uses.
The very young plant can be eaten as a salad green. Avoid eating it as the plant matures and the hooks develop and become unpleasant to eat.
When growing in clusters, cleavers forms a dense mat. This was used as bedstraw (thus one of its common names). It was also used as a sieve to filter milk. (This may have led to the use of cleavers as a vegetable rennet for separating curds from milk to make cheese.)
The seeds can be roasted and used to make a roasted-seed beverage.
The roots can be made into a red dye.
Whenever I encounter cleavers, especially in the early springtime, I
feel a palpable wave of refreshment wash through me, like taking a drink
from a cold mountain spring. And the plant literally glows before my
eyes—an aura of pure green health, if you will.
Meghan Gemma, Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, Herbal Immersion Program
There are over 600 species of Galium. Many, but not all, are useful as medicine. Some notable medicinal species include sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), and lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum).
This monograph is specifically about Galium aparine (cleavers).
Cleavers can be found all over the world in shady moist locations. If conditions are right, it will often grow in matted clusters.
It is an annual with square shaped stems. The leaves grow in a whorled pattern around each node, often six to eight in number. The leaves grow directly from the main stem.
The entire plant is covered in small hooks that allow the plant to cling to a variety of things, whether it’s growing over neighboring plants or adorning your clothing.
The tiny, white-to-green flowers have four petals and grow from the leaf axil.
It produces small sticky seeds that grow in clusters, often paired, which is a characteristic of the Rubiaceae family. The seeds easily catch on animal fur or clothing, helping with dispersal.
Cleavers is best when used fresh. The most popular way to prepare cleavers is by making it into a fresh juice (succus). You can do this with a juicer, or mash it up and squeeze the juice from it, or put it in a blender with just a bit of water. Keep in mind it takes a lot of cleavers to get much juice.
The fresh juice can be drunk immediately or it can be preserved for later use. You can add 25% alcohol to preserve the juice, or freeze it in ice cube trays and store in a freezer bag.
Cleavers can also be made into a fresh plant tincture. It is nutrient- and mineral-rich and nicely infuses into vinegar as well.
To capture the skin-healing qualities for an external application, infuse the wilted plants into oil for salves, creams, and serums.
The freshly dried plant can also be made into tea. Cleavers quickly loses its pizzazz when dried, so use the dried plant within a few months.
Fresh juice (succus): 1 teaspoon to 1/4 cup per day
Tincture or juice preserved with alcohol: 5-15 ml, three times daily
Tea: 10-30 grams
The King’s American Dispensatory says: “An infusion may be made by macerating 1 1/2 ounces of the herb in a pint of warm water for 2 hours, of which from 2 to 4 fluid ounces may be given 3 or 4 times a day, when cold.”6
Some people may rarely experience contact dermatitis after touching cleavers.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and the Education Director for LearningHerbs. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.