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Time for a Spring Cleaver?

Galium aparine, commonly known as cleavers or goosegrass, is a member of the coffee (Rubiaceae) family. Found in gardens and hedgerows throughout the Britain it is easy to identify: Cleavers have a square stem with whorls of 6-8 elliptical shaped leaves at each node in equal intervals along the stem. It can be found clinging to or spawling across upright vegetation as the leaves and fruits are covered in microscopic hooks. The highly extensible stem is thought that have evolved as a mechanism to help prevent uprooting and better able to cope with sudden tugs and swaying in the wind - a rare ability found only in the water species of the buttercup family (Goddard, 2004). So next time you are pulling bits of stickywilly off your clothes (or your dog) just think about the wonders of evolution! Anyway I digress…

Nature knows best right? This fast growing annual appears in spring and by mid-summer becomes suffocated by vegetation. Cleavers are used during this time period to help the body adjust to the change in season, aiding the lymphatic system after a period of winter stagnation, ready for a vitalised summer.

Forage when the plant is fresh until the early summer. I have found it brings the most punch just before it flowers but to be fair I harvest it regularly throughout the spring until the plant starts to seed. Once the plant has gone to seed the energy diminishes; at this point it is time to make a coffee alternative. Be careful to forage from unpolluted lands, as one study found that cleavers accumulated cadmium (a toxic metal) and may be used to remove cadmium from contaminated farmland (Liao, 2015).

To use cleavers: You can add the baby leaves to salads but they are a little spiky. Most often cleavers are made into a cold-infusion. To do this check your cleavers carefully for accurate ID, and remove any dead leaves or twigs. Give them a rinse. Chop up a handful and place them into a jar with cold water, and leave overnight in the fridge. If you wanted to go all out then add a slice of lime as it really brings out the cucumber-like taste. It couldn’t be simpler! A cold infusion will last about three days in the fridge so it is best to make regular small batches every few days.

Simply enjoy a glass of cleavers water each morning to put a spring in your step!

Cleavers is best used fresh, so if you do want some out of season it can be frozen or blended and stored in ice cubes trays, which can later be turned into balms for skin healing or all round easy access to this cooling, moistening and lymphatic tonic.

So how does Cleavers give you a spring in your step? While detox is a popular word at the moment it is relevant in the case of cleavers. Cleavers work on the lymphatic system which helps to clear metabolic waste by flushing out toxins with a diuretic action. Our energy making processes that take place in our cells, tissues and organs produce waste products and oxidants and it is the job of the lymphatic system to remove them. If our elimination routes become overwhelmed these oxidants can damage our cells and create inflammation (think rust on a car, for example) - we might feel tired, irritable, have headaches, skin breakouts and be prone to infection.

Cleavers are rich in chlorophyll (the green healthy colour of plants), silica and vitamin C which can support healthy skin and connective tissues. Meanwhile the phytonutrients (plant chemicals) provide anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory actions to reduce free radical damage created by oxidation. Some notable phytochemcials include the glycoside asperuloside; it is common throughout the Rubiaceae family has an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action (Shen, 2023; Manzione 2020). Chemical assaying found cleavers to contain phenolic acids including caffeic and сhlorogenic acid, as well as the flavonoids of catechin, quercetin, rutin and hyperoside. Chlorogenic acid and rutin were predominant (Shynkovenko, 2018). Gallotannic acid is a common phytonutrient too. It is thought that some of these plant chemical could have anti-cancer effects (Atmaca et al, 2016).

A healthy lymph system, including the kidney and liver, is vital for feeling vital! We need to have effective channels of elimination to remove waste - if not our body tries to clean through the skin and it therefore makes sense why cleavers is often used in dealing with chronic skin disorders such as: eczema, acne, urticaria and psoriasis. Interestingly, cleavers was in the BMJ for its effects on healing chronic ulcers as long ago as 1883!  (Br Med J 1883;1:1173).

Cleavers coffee?

Given this plant is part of the coffee family, the seeds are sometimes used as a mild coffee alternative. Once the leaves are past their best you can start collecting the sticky part of willy, and save the seeds (around the end of July). Pick when green and let them dry, roasting them gently in the oven with the door open - grind them and well, you have coffee. Always test a small amount to see if it is for you but I find it does have quite a rich flavour, and a mild kick. And remember, moderation is key. I enjoy a small cup of the water or coffee a day.

Happy and safe foragaing!


Atmaca H, Bozkurt E, Cittan M., et al. (2016) Effects of Galium aparine extract on the cell viability, cell cycle and cell death in breast cancer cell lines. J Ethnopharmacol. Jun 20;186:305-310. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2016.04.007

Goodman 2004, Mechanical Adaptations of Cleavers (Galium aparine), Journal: Annals of Botany, : 2004, ISSN: 1095-8290

Br Med J 1883; 1: 1173 doi: (Published 16 June 1883)

Ilina, T., Kashpur, N.V., Granica, S. et al (2019) Phytochemical Profiles and In Vitro Immunomodulatory Activity of Ethanolic Extracts from Galium aparine L. Plants, 8.

Liao, Ming  et al. (2015) "Cleavers (Galium aparine), a newly discovered cadmium accumulator plant of winter farmland weeds." Fresenius Environmental Bulletin 24.12 (2015): 4285-4289.

Manzione, M, et al (2020) Phytochemical and pharmacological properties of asperuloside, a systematic review,European Journal of Pharmacology,Volume 883,173344.

Shen Q, Chen Y, Shi J, et al. (2023) Asperuloside alleviates lipid accumulation and inflammation in HFD-induced NAFLD via AMPK signaling pathway and NLRP3 inflammasome. Eur J Pharmacol. Mar 5;942:175504. doi: 10.1016/j.ejphar.2023.175504.

Shynkovenko, I. et al. "Phenolic compounds of the liquid extract from cleavers herb (Galium aparine L.)." News of Pharmacy 3 (95) (2018): 19-24.

Wu, H., Estrella, V., Beatty, M. et al. T-cells produce acidic niches in lymph nodes to suppress their own effector functions. Nat Commun 11, 4113 (2020).

The information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease and is for information only - if you have a pre-existing condition then it is prudent to seek professional advice.

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