Before there was Velcro, there were cleavers, a bristly, weak-stemmed annual with whorls of narrow leaves and inconspicuous white flowers. Arising from its winter bed during the seasonal transition into early spring, cleavers (Galium aparine) embody juicy, springtime vitality.
Growing in areas of moist, partial-shade, cleavers, also known as goosegrass and lady’s bedstraw, typically are thought to have originated in Europe. According to the USDA Plants Database, however, cleavers are considered native to the United States. Whether native or not, cleavers are found throughout the entire North American continent and have been used in Native American medicine.
According to traditional Western herbal healing, cleavers cleanse accumulating toxins from the fluid and its channels, such as the blood, lymph, sweat, bowels and kidneys, which can become stagnant during the colder months.
The fresh, brilliant-green cooling juice released from its stem and leaves contains citric acid, sweet-smelling coumarins (which is not the same blood-thinning compound, Coumarin), and asperuloside, a laxative.
Signs of stagnation for which cleavers are used in order to nudge the fluid channels toward more efficient elimination are swelling of the hands and feet, or nodule-like cysts on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet; fibrous tissue in the breasts; inflammation in the kidneys or urethra, or kidney “gravel”; constipation; and cystic acne.
The Nitinaht people of British Columbia are reported to have used cleavers as a hair wash to make the hair grow long.
Harvest the above-ground parts while they’re bright green, before the weather becomes too hot in late spring when cleavers become stringy, yellowed and has gone to seed. On a daily basis while locally available, gather a handful of cleavers – carefully removing co-existing plants unless it’s chickweed (Stellaria media), which has properties similar to cleavers – and either juice them, or chop the herbs, putting them in a pitcher and pouring about 32 ounces of boiling water over them. Allow the cleavers to steep for 8-10 minutes. Strain and drink a couple cups a day. Cleaver tea smells like spinach-water and tastes like grass, so one might want to add lemon juice for flavor.
A member of the Madder family (Rubiaceae), the same family with coffee, cleaver seeds can be roasted as a caffeine-free coffee substitute.
One can experience spring by drinking cleaver tea, bathing in cleavers, or wearing sprigs of cleavers, which make a natural springtime corsage, adhering to any article of clothing when applied.
Paying attention to the plants of the season, and accepting their gifts, brings us closer to the natural, healing rhythm of Earth.