It is Spring, and the Cleavers are up! All along the creek sides, bike paths and garden patches, this sticky little herb is making appearances. Now is the time to find a healthy stand and bring some home for a nice spring tonic.
I found an abundant population growing along Bear Creek, and collected a handful for my last herb class on Spring: Wood: Liver. I made an infused tea with the fresh Cleavers, which we tasted in class. I cooked the rest of it, along with some fresh dandelion greens, as a side vegetable with my dinner.
This herb is such an effective and gentle lymph mover, I wanted to harvest enough to put some up in my dispensary. I scouted out a few other areas, but none were as abundant as the first spot down by the creek. So I returned, greeted the deer that were grazing there, and proceeded to pick some fresh Galium aparine.
Cleavers is in the Rubiaceae plant family. It is one of the few examples of plants in the Madder family that grow in Northern states. Most other Rubiaceae family members are tropical shrubs, including coffee.
What's In A Name?
Cleavers is named for the sticky, spiny hairs all along the stem and leaves, that "cleave to" anything passing by: animal fur, long skirts, pant legs, etc. This botanical feature helps assure seed dispersal. The specific name aparine is derived from the Greek language. The word aparo means to seize, referring back to the sticky attachment.
An older common name is Lady's Bedstraw, earned for the practice of stuffing mattresses with this weed. Apparently the plants do not pack down flat, but retain a certain amount of "loft". Some Christian legend maintains that Cleavers was one of the "Cradle Herbs", in the hay in the manger in Bethlehem.
The related Galium verum's old common name is Cheese Rennet: this herb will curdle milk. The Latin name Galium is derived from the Greek word gala, for milk. 16th-century herbalist John Gerard wrote: “The people of Thuscane do use it to turne their milks and cheese, which they make of sheepes and goates milke, might be the sweeter and more pleasant to taste.”
Any good herbalist and wild-crafter knows the importance of properly identifying the plants we work with. This is true, whether one is gathering their own herbs, or purchasing from a wholesale or retail vendor. It is the end user's responsibility to make sure the plant material is in fact what you think it is.
In the case of the Cleavers I was gathering, the identification was pretty straight-forward. However, I noticed another plant growing in among the Cleavers: a plant with fern-like leaves, about 2-3 feet tall, with stems that were green and spotted with purple. Those purple-spotted stems were a clear identifying feature of Conium maculatum: Poison Hemlock. This is the famous hemlock that Socrates swallowed as his death sentence.
(Interestingly, there is reference to Cleavers being used for pain management, although this is not the primary action for which the herb is known. Similarly, the chemical constituent coniine, which is derived from Conium maculatum (Poison Hemlock) has also been used for pain management. Here were these two plants, growing in the same area, both offering some pain-relieving action. Note - this is merely an interesting observation, and in no way a suggestion to try using Poison Hemlock. It is a deadly plant!)
Because of the proximity to another, potentially toxic plant, I was very careful to select only Cleavers, separating it from everything else. When I brought the herb home to wash it, I did another careful examination, to make sure I didn't pick up anything else by accident. Each piece of herb was sorted and rinsed.
The active constituents in Cleavers can rapidly deteriorate once the herb dries. Therefore, it is best processed as a fresh juice. This is known as a succus. If it not used immediately, it can be preserved with a small amount of alcohol, to prevent fermentation. Or the fresh juice can be frozen; using ice cube trays is a great way to freeze appropriately-sized portions. Just thaw one or two cubes at a time, as needed.
I juiced the entire quantity of Cleavers I had collected, this time yielding a couple quarts of bright green, frothy liquid. I added 100-proof vodka as a preservative, one part alcohol to three parts juice. I bottled some of it right away in one-ounce dropper bottles. The rest went into the freezer, to be thawed later in the year.
Actions & Indications
The flavor of Cleavers is a little bitter, a little sweet, and a little salty. It contains chlorophyll and trace minerals. It acts on the Kidney, Bladder, and Liver meridians. It is cooling, a bit drying, softening & dissolving, decongesting and restoring.
In my experience, Cleavers is best known as a lymph mover. It is tonic to the lymphatic system, removes lymph congestion, beneficial for swollen glands & cysts, and counters lymphedema. It acts on swollen glands anywhere in the body, especially on the tonsils and adenoids.
Due to its alterative, or blood cleansing action, Cleavers has a history of use as a detoxicant. It is often included in herbal protocols for tumors and cysts. John Scudder, writing in 1874, described Cleavers as "useful for nodulated growths or deposits in the skin or mucous membranes." More recently, Peter Holmes stated that the biochemical actions of Cleavers include "increased urinary and lymphatic dredging of toxins; and enhanced catabolic resorption processes involving exudates and waste."
Susun Weed describes these actions for Cleavers: eases breast congestion; relieves breast swelling; tonifies veins, counters blood clots. Although the herb is generally described as gentle, with no known cautions or drug interactions, there are a few references to blood-thinning properties of the herb. In general, it could be said to relieve congestion and increase flow.
Cleavers is a diuretic, drains fluid congestion, and relieves edema. It soothes the kidneys and the urinary bladder, helps to dissolve stones, and combines well with Marshmallow and Cornsilk for these functions. It can also be used for enuresis (bedwetting) and for Benign Prostatic Hypertrophy.
Its cooling and detoxifying properties also make Cleavers a good choice for irritated and inflamed skin. It acts on eczema and psoriasis as well as burns and sunburns. In these instances, Cleavers can be applied topically as a wash or poultice, as well as taken internally. Cleavers is used for ulcers, whether they be found topically or internally. Greg Tilford writes that pure bedstraw juice is considered very beneficial for stomach ulcers.
Mrs. Maude Grieve also mentions that "the infusion has a most soothing effect in cases of insomnia, and induces quiet, restful sleep." While I have not found other references for this action, perhaps there is a relationship between the pattern that TCM practitioners call Phlegm Misting the Heart: lymph congestion could be a condition of excess phlegm, and one symptom of that pattern is insomnia. More specific studying would be required to confirm this thought.
She also writes: "In old Herbals, extolled for its powers as a purifier of the blood, the tops being used as an ingredient in rural “spring drinks”. This brings us back to the principle of collecting and using our herbs in season. After a long winter, with less outdoor activity, there is commonly a need to get the juices flowing, to clear congestion, and promote detoxification. Cleavers exemplifies all these actions.
So let's enjoy some fresh green juice!
Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel
The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook by James Green
A Modern Herbal by Mrs. Grieve
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman
The Energetics of Western Herbs by Peter Holmes
Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Sharol Tilgner
Breast Cancer? Breast Health! by Susun Weed