Galium a p a r i n e

Also known as goose grass, clivers, and sticky-willy, this common roadside plant clambers all over hedges and other plants in a green mass in high summer. It sends up bright green shoots from January onward, being one of the first plants to sprout.

Cleavers is a wonderfully gentle lymphatic cleanser and a fantastic spring tonic, helping clean up our system after winter. It soothes irritated membranes of the urinary tract and promotes urine flow, and is useful for many mouth and throat problems.

Rubiaceae Bedstraw family

Description: A clambering annual covered in small hooks that help it "cleave" to anything it touches. Can be several yards high. Leaves are in whorls; small white flowers are followed by pairs of small ball-like fruit.

Habitat: Hedgerows, farmland, stream banks, and gardens.

Distribution: Native to Eurasia and North America;

widespread but introduced in the southern hemisphere.

Related species: The genus Galium also includes the bedstraws. Lady's bedstraw (G. verum) and hedge bedstraw (G. mollugo) can be used interchangeably with cleavers as medicinal herbs.

Parts used: Above-ground parts, gathered in handfuls from early spring until the plants flower in the summer.

Cleavers is the earliest of the traditional spring tonic herbs to sprout, appearing even before the end of the year in sheltered spots under hedges. By February it is making dense mats of intensely green whorled leaves. This is the time to harvest it to eat in salads, before it becomes tough and hairy. Pick the shoots and chop them finely. Nicholas Culpeper (1653) nicely summarizes the traditional view:

It is a good remedy in the Spring, eaten (being first chopped small, and boiled well) in water-gruel, to cleanse the blood, and strengthen the liver, thereby to keep the body in health, and fitting it for that change of season that is coming.

By summer, cleavers romps all over the place, and its tiny white four-petaled flowers appear. At this stage, it will stick to anything, sometimes growing above head height. It can be used to make a quick makeshift collecting basket by twining it around on itself. As John Parkinson (1640) noted: the herbe serveth well the Country people in stead of a strainer, to cleare their milke from strawes, haires, or any other thing that falleth into it.

To understand how cleavers works in the body, you need to know a little about the lymphatic system. When our arteries carry oxygenated blood out to the far reaches of the body, the blood vessels branch smaller and smaller until only one red blood cell at a time can pass through.

These tiny blood vessels are the capillaries. Here, the red blood cells give up their oxygen and nutrients to the clear liquid around them, which then crosses the capillary walls into the cells.

The cells take the oxygen and nutrients, and in return give up their metabolic waste products to the fluid. This fluid doesn't go back into the blood vessels, but is collected by the lymphatic vessels, which are like a white bloodstream flowing back through the body toward the heart in parallel with the veins.

White blood cells in the lymphatic fluid start cleaning it up, and it passes through lymph nodes where the process continues. When it is all clean, the fluid rejoins the bloodstream at the point where the large vein enters the heart. Here it is pumped out to the lungs and the cycle begins again. If the lymph is clean and flowing well, the body will be healthy.

Use cleavers for...

Herbally, cleavers promotes the lymphatic flow and helps rid the lymphatic system of metabolic waste. In effect, it is like a pipe cleaner for the body's lymph ves sels. This makes it a good remedy for swollen glands, adenoid problems, tonsillitis, and earache. Again because of its effect on the lymph, cleavers enjoys a strong reputation for helping to shrink tumors, both benign and cancerous, and for removing nodular growths on the skin.

A spring tonic in the raw cleavers in foreground, ramsons flowering across the road on left. In County Durham, northern England

It is wonderful howstrong and healthy you wll become [on taking cleavers juice mixed with spring water]

- The Physicians of Myddfai (13th century)

Clavers, Aparine: the tender Winders, with young Nettle-Tops, are us'd in Lenten Pottages. - Evelyn (1699)

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