Cleave to me, or is it cleavers for me?

Cleaver in iris  The rain has caused many weeds to thrive, and it seems impossible to keep up with their rampant growth.   As I was admiring the tulips yesterday,  it was obvious that a sprawling weed with sticky stems and leaves was merrily taking over the Deck Garden.  I first noticed it wending its way through the irises.  The plant looks similar to madder, and also bears a little resemblance to its cousin, sweet woodruff in that its leaves circle around the stem like wheel spokes.  Nearby, it was trying to avoid detection by interweaving itself in the columbines.

cleaver in columbine It will soon develop tiny white flowers at the very tip of the stems, and then quickly at the tips of each branch.  After flowering, small ball-shaped seed pods that are very sticky form.  Even the gentlest brush releases them onto pant legs, socks and jacket cuffs.  They are quickly attached to animal fur and then released throughout the world.  I found a baby cleaver in one of the potager’s paths, probably a result of my neglect to pull every sticky ball from a pant leg after weeding last fall.  Here they are a bit closer, climbing up the deck wall!  Cleaver close The plant is generally known as cleavers but common folk often call it “goosegrass.”  The scientific name (Galium aparine) comes from the Greek word “aparo” which means “to seize” and that’s exactly what the plant does.  It clings to everything!  It is a member of the bedstraw family that includes madder and sweet woodruff, and like madder, the roots of cleavers will yield a red dye.  cleaver closer  Here one can almost see the rounded flower buds that have formed.  If I can’t get into the garden soon, there will be thousands and thousands of sticky seed balls throughout this garden.

Dioscorides mentions that stems of cleavers were matted together to form a strainer for milk.  I guess that was before cheesecloth was invented, but I can see that it would work, and it wouldn’t take long to gather enough sticky strands to make one.  Early writers even advised eating cleavers as an early spring vegetable, claiming that it was a tonic for the blood and liver and as a colon cleanser.  Some also recommended the plant as a dressing for wounds or to induce sleep.

Interestingly, lacemakers stuck the green seed balls on pins to make the heads larger so the forming lace would not slip out of place.  The small seeds apparently also make a good coffee substitute, but I can’t imagine having the patience to make it.  The sticky balls are tiny, and the seeds inside are even smaller!  One must gather the stems and allow them to wither and dry.  Pick the seeds off and place them in cold water, allowing all the excess debris and seed coatings to float to the surface.  Drain, spreading the black seeds in a shallow pan to roast in a hot oven for about 20 min.  Cool and grind the seeds.  Use 2-3 T. per pint of boiling water, steeping 10 min before straining in to cups.

Cleavers was also used as an underarm deodorant, which many claim is very effective.  Place a large handful of stalks and leaves in a quart of water.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 min.  Cool, strain and bottle.  The decoction keeps for about a week.

The plant is an annual, widespread, growing in sun or shade and reaching a height of 3’.  If you would like to try either of these recipes but do not have cleavers in your garden, come weed them out of mine!  If the rain doesn’t stop, and the soil dry a bit so I can step into the gardens to weed, there will be plenty for all!

About carolee

A former professional herb and lavender grower, now just growing for joy in my new potager. When I'm not in the garden, I'm in the kitchen, writing, or traveling to great gardens.
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11 Responses to Cleave to me, or is it cleavers for me?

  1. Every year there seems to be the “weed of the year” and in my garden, cleavers is (are?) it for 2019. Going out to fight the good fight on this fine day.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Island Time says:

    A very interesting post, thank you! I have been thinking about weeds a lot lately as I work in the garden. It seems to me that certain weeds are almost consciously trying to disguise themselves as the garden plant they are co-habitating with! Buttercups intermingling with the strawberries for example. Our cleavers are much smaller than yours, growing in the shade of the forest along the path to my garden. They smell of cucumbers if you rub their leaves. The recipes sound interesting too. Not that there is much free time for gathering cleavers seeds etc., what with all the weeding to be done!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lauren says:

    Fascinating history lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bcparkison says:

    Yes….I do think I have an abundance of that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ann Mackay says:

    That stuff is quite a problem here – I’m always pulling it out! It gets into the fur of my long-haired cat, so I have to de-cleaver him too! (We also called it ‘Sticky Willie’ in Scotland.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jo Shafer says:

    What a dainty little weed with many practical uses. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’d enjoy that in my garden, particularly not the herbal garden.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mala Burt says:

    I used to have this weed on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, but not here on the eastern side. The only good thing about it was that it was easy to pull from damp soil. Interesting that the roots make a red dye and the other historical uses you note. We are spoiled.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I just spent an afternoon pulling it out!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. We get it here in Yorkshire too. I never knew it could be used – fascinating, thank you! My weed of the moment is deadnettle, which I have spent all afternoon trying to dig up. At least I think it is deadnettle – furry stalks and leaves and it smells cloying and horrible when you pull it up?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I found this in my garden this spring. I thought it was Sweet Woodruff. I’ll pull it out immediately. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. L Troost says:

    This was the Weed of the Year near Pittsburgh last year.

    Like

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