Cleavers benefits abound! It grows freely, cleanses your lymphatic system, and provides nutrition. Try it in a tea or this fresh tincture recipe.
“Hey, that’s the weed I just saw yesterday!”
As an herbal newbie, I was flipping through my first herbal book when I saw a photo of cleavers. I had never noticed the plant before and had no idea it offered any health benefits.
Though landscapers may despise it, herbalists love it. Cleavers is a gentle cleansing herb that does wonders for your lymphatic system and can support urinary tract health.
Whether you eat it, infuse it, or tincture it with my instructions, you’ll love cleavers benefits!
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Cleavers Herb Basics: Get the 101
Cleavers goes by a number of common names. You might know it as bedstraw, goosegrass, sticky weed, grip grass, or velcro plant. All of these let you know that cleavers likes to stick to you.
Its botanical name is Galium aparine. In Latin, aparine means to seize. That’s exactly what cleavers seems to do to you anytime you touch it. It grabs on and won’t let go!
Despite its (potentially annoying) stick-to-you habits, cleavers has earned an important place in traditional herbal medicine.
Cleavers is best known as a spring tonic herb. It pops up along wooded areas, in gardens and landscaping, and in grassy areas in the early to mid-spring when the weather is cool with regular rains.
For centuries, people have used cleavers as an early spring green much like dandelion and chickweed. These wild herbs provided a boost of green nutrition and detoxification support after a winter of heavy meals made with stored foods.
How to Find and Identify Cleavers
When you want to find cleavers, you need to start looking when the weather is damp and cool in the spring. As summer nears, cleavers goes to seed and becomes less beneficial.
You can find cleavers where you find most other common spring weeds. Look along the edges of gardens, landscaping, wooded areas, driveways, and such.
Cleavers is one of the easiest plants to identify. It sends up long, square stems with thin whorled leaves that grow in groups of 6 or 8. Each set of leaves is around 3 inches apart from the next set. The leaves and stems are covered in tiny, hook-like hairs. These hairs allow the plant to cling to anything that touches it.
If you tear a cleavers stem apart, you’ll find that the inner stem will pull away from the outer stem layer. This gives you another way to identify it.
In late spring and early summer, the plant produces tiny white flowers with four pointed petals. These give way to lentil-sized fruits, also covered in hook-like hairs. The tiny fruits act like mini burrs and will cling to anything they can grab.
Cleavers will gladly form a dense patch if you let it grow. It will climb up itself, nearby plants, or anything else it can grab onto for support.
Cleavers looks a little like its cousin, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). There are a few ways to tell these lookalikes apart.
First, sweet woodruff has smooth leaves and stems, so won’t cling to you like cleavers does. Second, sweet woodruff has a lovely, vanilla-ish scent, while cleavers just smells green. Finally, cleavers likes to grow tall and climb on things, even if it has to climb on itself. Sweet woodruff grows closer to the ground and doesn’t climb as it grows.
Harvesting Tips & How to Dry It
Harvesting cleavers couldn’t be easier. But if you have sensitive skin, you might want to wear long sleeves. Cleavers’ grippy hairs feel a bit scratchy and irritating. I don’t mind it, but I also sometimes pick nettles barehanded.
You can easily pull the plant up by the roots, then snip or tear off the root end and any yellow leaves growing near the base of the plant. I usually do this to help keep the cleavers population under control.
The best time to harvest cleavers is right before or during flowering, but before the plant sets its tiny fruits. In my part of northern Ohio, that’s in May.
Cleavers contains a lot of moisture, so you need to use it soon after harvesting. Otherwise, it might mold or spoil before you can use it.
If you won’t use your cleavers right away, you can dry it. I like to cut it up into 4-6 inch pieces, then dehydrate it on low in my food dehydrator. The stems take the longest to dry because they’re so much thicker than the leaves. Cutting them up into shorter pieces helps them dry out faster.
The Many Medicinal Benefits of Cleavers
Cleavers offers a number of helpful medicinal benefits that support health in multiple body systems, as well as your overall health.
It’s most often used as a lymphatic herb. These herbs help your lymphatic system work better, which leads to better immune function, improved overall health, and sometimes even clearer complexion!
But cleavers benefits don’t end there.
- It’s a cooling herb and a diuretic, so you can use it to help support your urinary tract and kidneys if there’s irritation.
- Cleavers has been used to help people pass kidney stones and urinary sediment more easily.
- As an alterative, cleavers supports your body’s natural detoxification pathways. Alterative herbs were once called “blood cleansers,” which simply means they help your body eliminate metabolic waste and other toxins.
- Cleavers is rich in chlorophyll (which has a long list of health benefits) and other nutrients. People historically used cleavers as a spring tonic food and herb after a long winter of heavy, stored foods.
Back in 1883, the British Medical Journal even published a case report from a physician who used cleavers poultices to treat large, chronic, intractable ulcers on a 74-year-old man’s legs. He found them amazingly effective and even had his medical students help forage cleavers for the patient.
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Why Your Lymphatic System Matters
As I already mentioned, cleavers helps your body move lymphatic fluid. But what exactly does that look like?
Your lymphatic system plays an integral role in your immunity and detoxification. Lymph, a usually clear fluid, flows through tiny vessels to various lymph nodes throughout your body where foreign material, microbes, and metabolic waste are processed and removed.
It’s a vascular system, like your cardiovascular system, but it doesn’t have a strong pumping organ like the heart to move it around. Instead, your body relies on movement and nearby blood vessels to keep your lymphatic fluid moving.
Sometimes, when you’re sick, you might feel your lymph nodes swell up. I usually notice this before coming down with a cold or flu virus. This might happen because a node or two has gotten bombarded with a lot of pathogens and waste material, so it isn’t functioning at its peak.
Using a lymphatic herb like cleavers can help reduce that swelling and get the fluid moving like it needs to. As a bonus, when your lymphatic system is working like it needs to, you might notice clearer skin, better energy, and overall feeling of health.
Ways to Use Cleavers & Support Your Health
If you want to use cleavers for better health, you have a lot of preparation options.
The Classic Cleavers Infusion
One of the simplest ways to enjoy cleavers is by making a basic herbal infusion with it. An herbal infusion is similar to herbal tea, but you use more herbal material in less water, then steep it for a longer amount of time.
You can make a cleavers infusion with dry or fresh cleavers. In the springtime, I like to use fresh plant material since I can find it all over my yard.
To make a cleavers infusion, use 1/4 coarsely chopped fresh herb or 1 heaping tablespoon dried cleavers for every 1 cup of hot, but not boiling water. (Boiling water might destroy some of cleavers’ medicinal qualities, per herbalist Richo Cech.)
After 30 minutes or more, strain your infusion and enjoy hot or cold. I prefer cleavers infusion chilled with some lemon or apple cider vinegar to brighten up the flavor.
You can also use cleavers infusion topically as a wash or compress.
Just Juice It
If you have a juicer, try adding some cleavers to your next blend! Cleavers juice is extremely rich in chlorophyll, similar to wheatgrass juice, but with the perk of being freely available to forage.
If you don’t have a juicer and want to try cleavers juice, you can make do with a blender. Simply chop your cleavers into 2-3 inch pieces and place them in a small blender with 1/4 cup water. Blend on high for 10-20 seconds, then strain through a metal mesh sieve.
You can then add some lemon juice or other flavorings, or try it plain. If you make cleavers juice this way, it won’t be as concentrated as using a juicer.
You can also preserve cleavers juice by adding 1 part 200-proof alcohol (I use Culinary Solvent; use code THRIVE at checkout for 10% off your first order) to 3 parts juice by volume. So if you have 9 fluid ounces of cleavers juice, you’d add 3 fluid ounces of alcohol. You can take this shelf-stable herbal juice, called a succus, by the tablespoon.
Oil-Based Extractions for Topical Use
Herbal oils are a wonderful way to treat your skin with the healing power of plants.
To make a cleavers-infused oil, fill a glass jar halfway with coarsely powdered cleavers. Fill the jar with your choice of carrier oil, like olive, jojoba, or almond, then stir everything up and add more oil if needed.
Gently infuse in warm water for at least 3 hours, but up to 3 days, then strain out the herbal material. You can use the oil on its own, or turn it into lotions, salves, and creams for skin and lymphatic health.
For more details, be sure to see my article How to Make Amazing Herbal Oils for Skincare & Remedies.
Cleavers in the Kitchen
Cleavers isn’t just an herbal remedy; it’s a food, too!
However, I must give one little word of caution. As cleavers matures, the stem gets fibrous and impossible to chew. The first time I cooked cleavers, I didn’t know to harvest the young growth or tender tips. And it was terrible. My family and I looked like cows in a pasture, chewing, chewing, chewing.
So, once you’ve made sure to only use tender growth, you can add cleavers to all kinds of kitchen recipes:
- Cleavers can be a fun addition to foraged pestos, like my garlic mustard pesto.
- I toss some in with my wild chimichurri. The green flavor is perfect!
- You can cook chopped cleavers like you would spinach or other wild greens.
- Some people roast the fruits/seeds to make a coffee substitute. I haven’t tried this yet but think it looks fascinating!
Sometimes my smaller people will eat cleavers fresh out of the yard and garden. You can do that, too, but be aware that the sticky hairs all over the plant can irritate your lips as you eat it.
Tincture It for Easy Use All Year Long
My go-to way for using this clingy spring herb is to make a fresh cleavers tincture in the spring. Then, anytime someone in my house feels their lymph could use a little love, I have an easy way to put cleavers’ benefits to work.
I prefer making a fresh cleavers tincture instead of a dry herb tincture. Fresh cleavers is bursting with juicy greenness, turning the solvent an unbelievably deep, vibrant green in a matter of moments. Dry cleavers doesn’t have that same vibrancy.
However, if you can only get dry cleavers and you want to make a tincture with it, you’ll still end up with a beneficial extract.
How to Make a Fresh Cleavers Tincture
Many years ago, as a budding herbalist, tinctures intimidated me. I’m not sure why, but I smile about it now since they’re an incredibly easy project! You only need two ingredients and the most basic kitchen skills.
This fresh cleavers tincture is at a 1:2 ratio, meaning you’ll use 1 gram of herb in 2 milliliters of solvent. Since you’re using fresh plant material with a high water content, you want to use the highest-proof alcohol you can find, preferably 200-proof. I use Culinary Solvent’s 200-proof organic ethanol for my tinctures.
You’ll end up with around 16 fluid ounces, or 1 pint, of finished tincture with this recipe.
Fresh Cleavers Tincture Ingredients
- 175 grams fresh cleavers, coarsely chopped, and weighed on a kitchen scale
- 350 ml 200-proof alcohol (I use Culinary Solvent; use code THRIVE at checkout for 10% off your first order)
Instructions for a Homemade Cleavers Tincture
- Put the chopped cleavers into a blender, then pour the alcohol over top.
- Blend on low-medium speed for 15 seconds, then stop to move around any stuck plant material. Since cleavers stems can be a bit fibrous, you might need to do this a couple of times. Blend until the cleavers is finely chopped, but not puréed.
- Pour into a glass jar, cover with a lid, and label with the product name, plant name (common and binomial), harvest information, tincture ratio, solvent information, and date started. You can also record this information in a notebook, like The Herb Study Notebook.
- Place the jar in a cabinet or on a countertop away from heat and direct sunlight. Shake the tincture daily, or as often as you think of it. This is called macerating.
- After 4 weeks, you can strain your tincture through a cloth-lined metal sieve. Squeeze out all of the liquid that you can by hand or with a potato ricer lined with cloth.
Confession: I have the amazing tincture press from Strictly Medicinal Seeds and it makes this process a breeze. It’s a big investment but incredible if you make a lot of herbal extracts.
- Carefully pour your finished tincture into a glass bottle. I reuse glass kombucha bottles. Label it with the information you recorded when you made the tincture, as well as your finish date.
You can take larger doses of cleavers tincture than you can some other herbs. The typical tincture dosage for an adult is 5 milliliters twice a day, but you can double that for cleavers. If your symptoms are really strong, you can even take it hourly for a day until symptoms subside.
Your cleavers tincture will last for 3-5 years, if not longer. Store it in a cool, dark place for best results.
Printable How-To Card: Fresh Cleavers Tincture
- 175 grams fresh cleavers herb, coarsely chopped
- 350 ml 200-proof alcohol
1. Put the chopped cleavers into a blender, then pour the alcohol over top.
2. Blend on low-medium speed for 15 seconds, then stop to move around any stuck plant material. Blend until the cleavers is finely chopped, but not puréed.
3. Pour into a glass jar, cover with a lid, and label with the product name, plant name (common and binomial), harvest information, tincture ratio, solvent information, and date started.
4. Place the jar in a cabinet or on a countertop away from heat and direct sunlight. Shake the tincture daily, or as often as you think of it. This is called macerating.
5. After 4 weeks, you can strain your tincture through a cloth-lined metal sieve. Squeeze out all of the liquid that you can by hand or with a potato ricer lined with cloth.
6. Carefully pour your finished tincture into a glass bottle. Label it with the information you recorded when you made the tincture, as well as your finish date.
I highly recommend the 200-proof organic ethanol from Culinary Solvent. I've used it to make my herbal extracts for years. Use the code THRIVE at checkout to save 10% on your first order from Culinary Solvent.
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Cleavers is another one of those wild plants that deserves a better reputation than just being a pesky garden weed.
It’s a lymphatic herbal superstar, useful as both a food and medicine. Whether you tincture it, infuse it, or eat it, there are lots of ways to enjoy cleavers benefits.
But remember, if you’re going to eat it, always pick the young shoots. Unless, of course, you want to look like a cow in the pasture, chewing, chewing, chewing.
Have you ever used cleavers in food or medicine?