A Forager’s Guide to Cleavers (Galium Aparine)

Known as sticky weed or cleavers, Galium aparine is a common weed that we have all encountered at some point in our lives. Due to the presence of small prickles on the stems and leaves, the herbage clings to clothing and animal fur. Native to California, cleavers is considered to be an edible weed. 

Cleavers plant profile

Scientific nameGalium aparine L.
FamilyRubiaceae (madder family)
Plant typeAnnual herbaceous plant
PhylumVascular plant

Common names include:

  • cleavers
  • clivers
  • catchweed
  • bedstraw
  • grip grass
  • sticky willy
  • goosegrass
  • sticky weed
  • robin-run-the-hedge
  • sticky willy
  • sticky willow
  • velcro weed

Cleavers plant identification

White flowers, borne in clusters of two to five, arise from the leaf axils.

Dry, rough fruit covered with short hooked bristles, separating into two small, seeded cases when ripe.

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Leaves are narrow or lance-shaped, stalkless, often an inch or more in length, rough with hooked prickles, set in a circle around each joint (node), square, and slightly thickened at the joints, straggling, light green, with rough angles and hooked prickles.

When foraging, look out for creeping, straggling stems that grow along the ground and over other plants.

Galium aparine, Photography by Curtis Clark
Galium aparine, Photography by Curtis Clark

Where does cleavers grow

Cleavers are native to California but can be found worldwide in Europe, North America, Asia, Greenland, and Australia.

Galium aparine is found throughout the northern hemisphere, except for Hawaii and in most provinces of Canada and northern Mexico.

A variety of habitats are suitable for its growth, including:

  • forests
  • woodlands
  • meadows
  • prairies
  • disturbed areas
  • cultivated crops

Generally, it is found in low shrubby vegetation, in arable fields, and in gardens with moist soils.

What are Cleavers used for?

Historically, cleavers have been used as a slimming aid due to their diuretic properties.

Most commonly, cleavers are employed as a cleansing herb to treat a variety of ailments, including:

  • kidney disorders
  • urinary disorders
  • infections
  • itching
  • skin conditions like eczema

Among other uses, lacemakers used the sticky seeds in antiquity to enlarge pinheads, and the root produced a red dye.

There are also a number of traditional uses and benefits associated with cleavers, including:

  • Several centuries ago, cleavers were believed to be effective in treating gonorrhea. The use of antibiotics today is, however, a more effective and reliable method of treating this dangerous sexually transmitted disease.
  • In the case of skin ulcers, burns, and acne, cleavers is believed to have a cooling effect on the skin. In the late 1800s, anecdotal reports suggest that cleavers could reduce the size of leg ulcers.
  • Edema or swelling: The diuretic effect of cleavers is believed to relieve swelling and promote fluid movement throughout the body.
  • In the springtime, cleavers is associated with easing the heaviness and stillness of winter by reducing swelling and fluid accumulation in the glands.
  • Bladder infections are believed to be connected to inflammation and heat in alternative medicine. It is thought that cleavers have a cooling and diuretic effect on the urinary tract.

Is Cleavers toxic to dogs or humans?

No, cleavers is not poisonous to dogs or humans.

Cleavers appear to pose minimal health risks when consumed or applied to the skin. Even though this plant does not have any notable side effects, it is always possible to develop an allergic reaction to it.

There are a number of non-specific symptoms of allergies, including:

  • Diarrhea
  • Runny nose
  • Stomach pain
  • Throat swelling
  • Trouble breathing
  • Watery or red eyes
  • Dizziness
  • Hives or a rash
  • Itchiness

Is Cleavers edible?

Cleavers is considered to be an edible weed. Vitamin C is abundant in the whole plant.

Medieval cooks used it as a potherb because it could be harvested even in frost or snow.

How to cook with cleavers

When boiled, the plant’s hook-like bristles soften, and its chopped leaves and stem can be used in soups and stews. It is possible to boil and butter the tender shoots as a vegetable.

You will hear from foragers that young shoots are delicious when cooked. You should boil them for 10 to 15 minutes before adding them to an omelet. Prepare by boiling, chilling, and adding to salads. You may enjoy the young tips raw or boil them and serve them with butter.

Cleavers can be used to prepare a caffeine-free coffee substitute that is supposed to taste just like coffee, which makes sense since they belong to the same family.

To prepare this version of coffee, slow roast the seeds in your oven or on your stovetop until they are dark brown. Keep an eye on them to ensure that they do not burn. Send the grounds through your coffee grinder and prepare them as you would for regular coffee.

The plant can also be used to make juice. Without a juicer, you can fill up your blender, add a little water to get it going, and then strain out the pulp. You can also use jelly straining bags for this purpose.

It is important to remember that the juice does not store well, so it should be consumed as soon as possible. You can add a splash of lemon or apple juice to enhance the taste and make it more refreshing.

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