Anyone who gardens or who walks through the countryside will come across cleavers, Gallium aparine. They may not notice the plant until literally stuck to it, hence one of its folk names, Sticky Willy. It has many different names, depending on which part of the country you live in. My father always calls it herrick. Once you identify the plant, everyone knows it and usually tries to remove it from wherever it is growing as fast as possible.
Cleavers are a fast growing plant with quadrangular stems and slender, lance-shaped leaves which are all covered with tiny hook-shaped bristles, allowing it to fasten itself to neighbouring plants, animals or anything else it comes across. The flowers are small, white and star-shaped like chickweed. As the season progresses they form into tiny, hard green balls which then turn brown. The seeds are also covered with bristles which attach themselves to everything and are very hard to remove.
Cleavers first appear in February as tiny springs of green with opposing leaves either side of the stem. This young growth can be added to salads or made into a pleasant tea tasting of peas. The aerial parts are best harvested before flowering as they become very tough and unpalatable afterwards. The seeds can be dried and roasted as a coffee substitute. The plant contains several important constituents such as Vitamin C, glycosides, plant acids and flavonoids
In Anglo-Saxon times, the plant was known as a general tonic. Its name of Goosegrass came from being chopped up to feed to goslings. In the fourteenth century the ointment was used for scalds and burns. By Culpepper’s time it had a myriad of uses. He recommended it to be chopped up small and well boiled to be eaten in a water-gruel to cleanse the blood and strengthen the liver, thus keeping the body in good health and preparing for the change in season from winter to spring.
Culpepper used the juice and seed together in wine to protect the heart when someone had been bitten by an adder. Gerard expanded this to bites from spiders and other venomous creatures. He also wrote it was a favourite remedy, taken in broth, to keep someone “lean and lank that are apt to grow fat”. He used a distilled water and a decoction twice a day for jaundice and found they helped with “lasks and bloody flux” as well demonstrating its astringent effects.
The juice was used to “close up the lips of green wounds” and found the powder of the herb could also be used on both fresh wounds and old ulcers. Interestingly, he infused the plant material in “hog’s grease” and used it to soften “hard swellings and kernels in the throat.” Cleaver juice was also used to good effect for ear ache when dropped into the ear.
We would understand these actions because cleavers work on the lymph system, helping to break down blockages and moving fluid throughout the body. I used it when I suffered with a general inflammatory condition caused by exhaustion and stress which had my ankles swollen for nearly three weeks. I used the tincture, made from aerial parts steeped in vodka for three weeks.
In Victorian times, cleavers was used by “young gentlewomen” to ensure a clear and fair complexion. Again, this would be a lymphatic action helping to remove toxins from the skin and prevent outbreaks of acne or other difficulties. It was also used for sunburn and freckles where the tea was used as a wash.
This practice may well have come from the mid-19th century translation of The Physicians of Myddfai by John Pughe which includes the recipe for a cleaver overnight maceration of pounded fresh cleavers in spring water. It was recommended this be the only drink for nine weeks to promote overall good health.
Cleavers also acts as a diuretic. Maud Grieve mentions it as having a powerful effect if taken in large quantities, hence the popularity of the herb with those who wish to slim which has been well known since Roman times!
The plant can also be bruised and applied as a poultice to sores and blisters. Similarly the juice can be applied to eczema and other skin conditions as well as insect bites. Grieve says, “The herb has a special curative reputation with reference to cancerous growths and allied tumours, an ointment being made from the leaves and stems wherewith to dress the ulcerated parts, the expressed juice at the same time being used internally.”
As with any plant, care should be taken in some circumstances. Maud Grieve mentions that cleavers should not be used as a diuretic if diabetes is suspected. I was taken to task by a fellow herbalist several years ago for recommending cleavers to help reduce lymphatic swelling in post breast cancer surgery. If there had been cancer cells in the glands, these could have been spread around the body by the cleavers; something I had not considered at the time.
It never ceases to amaze me that a common, usually despised “weed” as cleavers should have such diverse and profoundly useful properties which are freely available if you only know what to look for!
Culpeper, N Complete Herbal 1653 Wordsworth Reference 1995 ISBN 1 85326 345 1
Grieve, M A Modern Herbal 1973 (revised) Random House ISBN 1-904779018
Kress, H Practical Herbs 2011 Tamerprint Oly ISBN 9789526757506
Pollington, S Leechcraft 2000 Anglo-Saxon Books ISBN 1 989281 238
Pughe, J The Physicians of Myddfai 2008 Llanerch Press ISBN 1897853157