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 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.
Cleavers have a strong historical reference for the treatment of tumour’s and cancer, as well as for tuberculosis, syphilis and dropsical complaints.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’.
What practitioners say
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.
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 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).
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.
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).
There 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.
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).
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.
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.
- Sticky willy
- Sticky weed
Cleavers are safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding at the correct dose.
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.
- Fresh herb
- Hot or colds infusion
- Fluid extract
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
- Plant acids – caffeic; p- coumarin, gallic, p-hydroxybenzoic, salicylic, citric)
- Iridoid glycosides- asperuloside; rubichloric acid
- Flavonoids (2,3)
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.
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.
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.
Cleavers cold infusion
- Spring water
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism – principles and practices. Inner Traditions Bear And Comp.
- Menzies-Trull, C. (2013). Herbal medicine keys to physiomedicalism including pharmacopoeia. Newcastle: Faculty Of Physiomedical Herbal Medicine (Fphm).
- Bone, K. and Mills, S. (2013). Principles and practice of phytotherapy modern herbal medicine. 2nd ed. Edinburgh Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier.
- Brooke, E. (2018). Woman’s Book Of Herbs. The Women’s Press Limited. London.
- Wood. M. 2004. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Organs and Systems. North Atlantic Books,U.S.
- Easley, T. and Horne, S.H. (2016). The modern herbal dispensatory: a medicine-making guide. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.