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Cleavers are a refreshing medicine with powerful cleansing and regenerative properties

Cleavers

Galium aparine Rubiaceae

Cleavers are one of the best herbs for conditions affecting the lymphatic system. They are used for all manner of congestions in the body as well as for conditions of the skin and urinary tract. This powerful spring herb is a must-have in any medicine chest.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Commonly cultivated though may be sourced from the wild. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Lymphatic
  • Detoxifying
  • Sinusitis and respiratory congestion
  • Skin conditions
  • Urinary tract conditions
  • How does it feel?

    A cold infusion made using spring water and freshly foraged cleavers is one of the finest tastes of spring. Cleavers deliver a crisp, clean cucumber-like taste which is an absolute delight to drink. For cleavers, fresh herb is always best due to its high water content, much of the herb mass and the medicinal potency is lost on drying. The tincture of cleavers is similar to taste – with smooth and grassy tones.

  • What can I use it for?

    cleavers

    Cleavers are one of spring’s best cleansing medicines. They support the lymphatic system and assist with any congestions, such as those experienced with the classic ‘heady’ spring cold virus. They can be used as a daily tonic throughout spring to help clear out stagnation built up in winter. This medicine is safe for all the family and is best used as a fresh herb, foraged in early to mid-spring.

    Cleavers also directly support the immune function and can be used to help reduce the symptoms of seasonal viruses.

    Cleavers are second to none for sinusitis and other congestions in the upper respiratory tract. As they promote movement in the lymphatic system, their benefits extend to all of our physical system- circulation, waste removal, cell regeneration etc.

    Better movement in the lymphatic system means better detoxification of waste products and toxins from the body. By this means, cleavers allow for better cellular regeneration and micro circulation. Cleavers offer all of these wonderful health benefit’s but their season is short-lived. As fresh is best for this herb and its foraging season is short – a succus (or juice) can be made and frozen into ice trays for extended use (see dosage for instructions).

  • Into the heart of cleavers

    Energetically, cleavers are cooling and demulcent. They improve the movement and flow in the lymphatic system, reducing stagnation in the tissues. This action allows for better removal of toxins and therefore it also allays inflammation and restores balanced function in all functional tissues of the body. The removal of toxins and congestion produces a systemic cooling action. Cleavers are one of the best herbs for this combined action.

    They are perfect for hot, inflamed conditions where fluid retention or excess phlegm is an associated symptom. This would include sinusitis and rheumatism.

  • Traditional uses

    Cleavers have a strong historical reference for the treatment of tumour’s and cancer, as well as for tuberculosis, syphilis and dropsical complaints. However, this is just historical use and there are no clinical trials to show cleavers efficacy for cancer care. One must always consult a qualified practitioner for cancer care support. All of the most renowned herbalists and physicians throughout history have referenced to this herb’s use for hot inflamed skin conditions and as a blood purifier. Culpeper additionally recommended cleavers for the treatment of earache and for ‘colds of the head’.

    There is a fascinating story written in a historical text called the King’s American Dispensary, published in The British Medical Journal in 1883. A case where a patient with severe non-healing leg ulcers that didn’t respond to more common treatments was cured by cleavers. The text states that the fresh aerial parts were made into a poultice and applied it to the leg ulcers, using a fresh poultice three times a day. It writes, ‘the 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’.

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    cleavers seedsImmune system

    Cleavers are a primary herb of the lymphatic system which is concerned with the immune system and fluid balance. This makes cleavers a highly useful medicine for almost all treatment protocols, due to the importance of these functions in holistic herbalism. Part of the lymphatic system’s function is to carry white blood cells (immune cells) around the body. Therefore, when working to support the immune system, it is wise to support the lymphatic system too as they work together.

    Improving the function of the lymphatic system assists with the removal of toxins and reduces congestion anywhere in the body. Cleavers also enhance the immune function, increasing one’s resilience to illness.

    Any herbalist would use cleavers to treat conditions affecting the lymphatic system such as lymphoedema, mumps or fluid retentions, with the latter often observed in systemic inflammatory conditions.

    Cancer

    Cleavers may be used by herbalists as part of an integrated approach for cancer patients and for those in cancer remission. They offer many benefits to the immune system whilst supporting cellular detoxification through improved lymphatic drainage. Cleavers are and rich in antioxidant compounds such as flavonoids and tannins. This makes them an excellent support to help maintain cellular health and avoid damage caused by free radicals (3,4). However, for treating such serious conditions it is paramount that one works with a clinical herbalist who can work with the doctors who are treating the condition. Herb-drug interactions are a risk, as are using herbs which can exacerbate the illness.

    cleavers Galium aparine plantUrinary

    Cleavers have a gentle yet powerful, soothing diuretic action that is used to increase the flow of urine. Due to these action’s cleavers would be appropriate for use where there is irritation and inflammation in the bladder, urethra, or vas deferens in the testes (3,5).

    Cleavers are a valuable remedy for cystitis, benign prostatic hyperplasia, prostatitis, epididymitis, urethritis, chronic UTIs, and interstitial cystitis (2,3,4). They are used in combination with soothing urinary demulcents such as corn silk. Cleavers is an essential part of a formula for any of the above conditions.

    The mechanism of action for cleavers as a demulcent healer of the mucous membranes such as those in the urinary tract is due to the presence of silica which strengthens weak connective tissue and improves its structure and function (5).

    Skin

    Cleavers should always be considered for conditions of the skin, particularly those of a dry nature such as psoriasis. It can be taken internally to support the underlying inflammation and to support with the elimination of cellular toxins and waste products.

    A herbalist’s approach to the treatment of inflammatory skin conditions will usually include support for the systems of elimination. This is because in many cases these systems are observed to be under-functioning. Modern life is full of environmental impurities, so our bodies have a lot to keep up with even if we eat well. This can also be caused by stress, poor diet, sensitivities etc., just to name a few.

    This poor eliminatory function is understood to result in an excess of toxins in circulation. The skin is also a last resort system of elimination so when the liver, kidneys and lymphatic system are overburdened, this toxicity may be erupting its way out through the skin. As cleavers support all of these systems, they are an invaluable part of any holistic approach for treating skin conditions.

    Nervous system

    Cleavers are also well referenced as a herb for the nervous system. Matthew Wood’s specifies indications for cleavers as; nervousness, sympathetic excess, skin irritability/ itchiness, an unsettled feeling, insatiability and nervous irritability. Cleavers can be used alongside other nervine herbs such as oat straw, lemon balm or vervain, for these presentations (6,7).

  • Research

    cleavers flowersThere is a surprising lack of good research for cleavers, despite its long and successful history of use in herbal medicine. Some available in vitro studies showing the mechanism of action using extracts and certain compounds in cleavers have however been included. Clinical trials in human subjects are the most relevant and reliable form of evidence. Most clinical trials are carried out using ‘whole plant’ extracts that better validate the effects of a full spectrum of active herbal compounds.

    Immune system

    In an in vitro study, the chemical composition and immunomodulatory activities of cleavers ethanolic extracts were analysed. The extracts were obtained at three different strengths by maceration with 20%, 60% or 96% ethanol. All of the extracts showed that they helped stimulate the transformational activity of immunocompetent blood cells, meaning cells that mediate the immune response. Overall, the extract which was 96% ethanol was shown to be most active when supporting immune response (9).

    Similarly, another study investigated the immunostimulatory activity and antioxidant potential of a raw infusion and different bioactive fractions. It was shown that cleavers caused significant immunostimulatory and antioxidant scavenging activities. This gives evidence of how cleavers work’s as a topical remedy for skin infections and wounds, which is one of the ways it is traditionally used (11). Another study also showed good antioxidant activity of water extracts of cleavers (8).

    Breast cancer

    A study was conducted on methanolic extracts of cleavers to see its activity on human breast cancer cells and healthy breast epithelial cells. Results show that the extract was cytotoxic against the cancer cells, killing cancer cells by various mechanisms of action. However, it didn’t affect normal healthy cells, which makes it a more promising agent for potential cancer treatment. More research needs to be conducted to see if these results translate into humans (10).

  • Did you know?

    Cleavers belong to the same family as coffee. The seeds of cleavers can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. They contain small amounts of caffeine and are easily foraged in abundance.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Cleavers are well known for their sticky leaves and stems. They consist of weak, sprawling stems, of up to 1m (39in) long. They bear whorls of 6-8 long, slender green leaves with a prominent central vein. Tiny greenish-white flowers are borne in branching clusters between May to August and develop into round, green (later brown/ purple) fruits 3-5mm in diameter. Stems, leaves and seed have stiff hooked hairs and are sticky or velcro like.

  • Common names

    • Clivers
    • Goosegrass
    • Sticky willy
    • Sticky weed
    • Hedgeriff
  • Safety

    Cleavers are safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding at the correct dose.

  • Interactions

    None known

  • Contraindications

    Cleavers has strong diuretic properties, and should be therefore used with caution by people with diabetes or other conditions where fluid balance is controlled using medications.

  • Preparation

    • Fresh herb
    • Hot or colds infusion
    • Succus
    • Tincture
    • Fluid extract
  • Dosage

    Tincture (1:5 25%): Take between 4- 8ml three times a day.

    Fluid extract (1:1 25%): Take between 2- 4ml in a little water three times a day.

    Infusion: Cleavers can be made into a hot or cold infusion by infusing around a handful of fresh herb or 2- 3tsp of dried herb in either a pint of hot or cold water. Cold water infusions should be infused for between 24- 48 hours. Hot infusions should be infused for unto 15 minutes. Strain and drink up to 3 times daily,
    Succus – The fresh juice of cleavers can also be frozen in ice cubes. Have between 5- 15ml per day.

  • Plant parts used

    Herb / aerial parts

  • Constituents

    • Plant acids – caffeic; p- coumarin, gallic, p-hydroxybenzoic, salicylic, citric)
    • Coumarins
    • Iridoid glycosides- asperuloside; rubichloric acid
    • Tannins
    • Phenols
    • Flavonoids (2,3)
Cleavers (Galium aperine)
  • Habitat

    Cleavers are widespread and native across the United Kingdom, Europe and parts of north Africa. It can be found in a range of habitats including hedgerows, cultivated land, riverbanks, shingle, waste ground and woodland edges.

  • Sustainability

    According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status cleavers are classified as least concern due to its widespread distribution, stable population’s and no major threats (1).

    Habitat loss and over harvesting from the wild are two of the biggest threats faced by medicinal plant species. There are an increasing number of well-known herbal medicines at risk of extinction. We must therefore ensure that we source our medicines with sustainability in mind.

    The herb supplement industry is growing at a rapid rate and until recent years a vast majority of medicinal plant produce in global trade was of unknown origin. There are some very real and urgent issues surrounding sustainability in the herb industry. These include environmental factors that affect the medicinal viability of herbs, the safety of the habitats that they are taken from, as well as the welfare of workers in the trade.

    The botanical supply chain efforts for improved visibility (transparency and traceability) into verifiably sustainable production sites around the world is now certificated through the emergence of credible international voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). Read our article on Herbal quality and safety: What to know before you buy to learn more about what to look for and questions to ask suppliers about sustainability.

  • Quality control

    Cleavers should be harvested just before and as they begin to flower, and throughout their short flowering period. Once they begin to go to seed, they are no longer ideal for medicine making.

    The fresh herb is always best with cleavers due to its high water content. Much of the herb mass is lost during drying. A fluid extract is often made using fresh herb rather than dried. However, the gold standard for this plant is used fresh or as succus (juice) made in spring. The succus can be poured into ice cube trays and frozen for later use.

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.

    A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    Cleavers are commonly thought of as weeds. They are extremely easy to grow and sometimes can become a little over-populated in the garden. It’s worth noting that they will self seed easily and start popping up. One may like to use in abundance for fresh cleaver cold infusions (recipe above) as a way to control the population.

    Cleavers prefer a loose moist leafy soil but can tolerate some dry soil. Seeds are best sown outside directly into the garden soil as soon as the seed is ripe in late summer. The seed can also be sown in spring, though it may be very slow to germinate.

  • Recipe

    cleavers teaCleavers cold infusion

    Ingredients

    • Cleaver
    • Spring water

    Method

    1. Simply harvest a handful of fresh cleavers in spring. You can chop them up a little to open up the surface for a deeper medicine or simply place into a pint glass or jug of spring water.
    2. Infuse the cleavers in the refrigerator for between 24- 48 hours. You can then pour off the beautiful refreshing cold infusion into a clean glass and drink freely throughout the day for a refreshing cold and cleansing spring tipple!
  • References

    1. Khela, S. (2012). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Galium aparine. [online] IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available at: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/203459/2765924.
    2. Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism – principles and practices. Inner Traditions Bear And Comp.
    3. Menzies-Trull, C. (2013). Herbal medicine keys to physiomedicalism including pharmacopoeia. Newcastle: Faculty Of Physiomedical Herbal Medicine (Fphm).
    4. Bone, K. and Mills, S. (2013). Principles and practice of phytotherapy modern herbal medicine. 2nd ed. Edinburgh Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier.
    5. Brooke, E. (2018). Woman’s Book Of Herbs. The Women’s Press Limited. London.
    6. Wood. M. 2004. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Organs and Systems. North Atlantic Books,U.S.
    7. Easley, T. and Horne, S.H. (2016). The modern herbal dispensatory: a medicine-making guide. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
    8. Bokhari, J., Khan, M.R., Shabbir, M., Rashid, U., Jan, S. and Zai, J.A. (2013). Evaluation of diverse antioxidant activities of Galium aparine. Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, [online] 102, pp.24–29. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.saa.2012.09.056.
    9. Ilina, T., Kashpur, N., Granica, S., Bazylko, A., Shinkovenko, I., Kovalyova, A., Goryacha, O. and Koshovyi, O. (2019). Phytochemical Profiles and In Vitro Immunomodulatory Activity of Ethanolic Extracts from Galium aparine L. Plants, 8(12), p.541. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/plants8120541.
    10. Atmaca, H., Bozkurt, E., Cittan, M. and Dilek Tepe, H. (2016). Effects of Galium aparine extract on the cell viability, cell cycle and cell death in breast cancer cell lines. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, [online] 186, pp.305–310. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2016.04.007.
    11. Ilina, T., Skowrońska, W., Kashpur, N., Granica, S., Bazylko, A., Kovalyova, A., Goryacha, O. and Koshovyi, O. (2020). Immunomodulatory Activity and Phytochemical Profile of Infusions from Cleavers Herb. Molecules, 25(16), p.3721. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25163721.
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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