When I first heard I was to write about Cleavers, I naturally, but quite erroneously, assumed I was to write about those large, steel, dangerous choppers called meat cleavers. The ones that chop joints of meat in Butchers’ shops and enable one to do terrible damage if you mishandle them or get in the way! How wrong can I be??
The Cleavers I write about in this article are Herbal Plants! They are annuals with creeping straggling stem thatched branches and grow along the ground, supporting other plants.
There are many uses for Herbal Cleavers – or Burrs, and five of these uses include the following:
• Making food – various recipes, both cooked as a vegetable and cold, in a salad.
• Making Coffee.
• Making Herbal Medicine, Treatments for slimming, kidney diseases, and urinary disorders. Also, Tonics and skin disorders, including rashes.
• Making Lace for the Belgium Lacemakers.
• Making great Tinder (Firewood).
They attach themselves to almost anything with the small hooked hairs which grow out of the stems and leaves. The branches can reach up to three feet or longer and are angular or square-shaped.
Their leaves are a simple, narrow, oblong shape and between six to eight of these leaves cling together in a whorl shape.
Cleavers have tiny, star-shaped, white to greenish flowers, which emerge from early Spring to Summer. These flowers are clustered together in groups. The groups consist of between two or three buds. They are borne out of what is known as the leaf axils. The corolla holds four petals.
The globular fruits are commonly called burrs that grow one to three seeds clustered together. They develop an enormous amount of hooked hairs that cling to animal fur, and human clothing and hair, aiding in seed dispersal.
Cleavers Herb got Cleavers’ name because of the sticky plants’ ability to attach itself – or ‘cleave’ – to human clothing or animal fur. This common weed is also surprisingly versatile, wild, edible, and a very multipurpose useful plant indeed!
Botanical Description of Cleavers Herb
The flowers are small and white and grow in clusters of between two to five. They rise together from the leaf support. They become fruit that is dry, rough, covered with short hooked bristles, and separating when ripe into two little, seeded cases.
The stem is between 30cms to 150cms long. It is square and slightly thickened at the joints. It appears to be a straggling stem, light green in color, the angles are rough with hooked prickly leaves which are narrow or lance-shaped and stalkless, and often an inch or longer, and wild with hooked prickles of about 6-8 in a circle round each joint (node).
Habitat and Distribution
Cultivated land, hedgerows, scrub.
Parts of the Herb Used for Food
Stems, leaves, and seeds.
Harvest Time for the Cleavers Herb
Harvest time is from Spring to summer.
Food Uses of Cleavers Herb
Centuries ago, Cleavers was used as a potherb. It was regarded as a useful plant in Medieval kitchens and not only because it could be harvested in frost or snow. The plant’s hook-like bristles soften when boiled. The chopped leaves and stems of this plant can be made into soups and stews. The tender shoots can be cooked in boiling water and served buttered as a vegetable.
The young green leaves can be prepared and eaten like spinach and will benefit the body in a slow but steady cleansing method.
The Cleavers leaves are also quite useful when mixed into a salad.
To this end, you may also use it as a juice to drink in the mornings for that same cleansing effect.
You can also use Cleavers as a Smoothie, a potherb, a dash of vinegar, and a tea infusion.
Cleavers belongs to the coffee family, and their seeds have been ground to make Cleavers Coffee.
The Nutritional Profile of the Cleavers Herb
The whole plant is completely rich in vitamin C snd lots of minerals.
There are a few recipes for Cleavers available. Two of them are known as:
• Cleavers and Aubergine Bake
• Six Wild Greens Soup
Reaching for my Nettle Beer, I take a swallow and, while chewing on my Angelica root, I decided to look for those recipes once this article is written.
Herbal Medicinal Uses of the Cleavers Plant
The Cleavers plant has long been used as a slimming aid because of its diuretic properties.
The most common use, worldwide, of the Cleavers plant has been as a cleansing herb.
Basically, it is used for treating ailments from kidney diseases and urinary disorders, infections of the bladders and urinary tract to general infections and itching.
Further, it is excellent for use on skin conditions such as eczema.
Cleavers should be chopped and boiled, and then you can either drink the water.
Or liquidize the whole thing and drink it. Whichever way you chose, it is a tonic to the body, cleansing it in general and giving it a ‘wake up’ ready for Spring.
This is a very general and gentle tonic that will only do good and no harm. However, if you are already taking medication, it’s always best to check first with your doctor.
Lace – Making and Wearing
In other uses, now passed on into antiquity, can you imagine that those sticky seeds were once used by Belgian Lacemakers – a highly respectable calling in those days – to enlarge pinheads.
Lace was hugely popular and essential – especially in the dressing of titled Ladies of the Land. Noblemen also favored items of lace in their wardrobes. With Royalty, of course, it was a must-have – and even People of the Cloth – Bishops and Mothers Superior – occasionally had lace attached to some of their outer garments.
Dies Bones Red
Here’s an unusual nugget of interest. The root itself yielded a red dye. The plant can turn birds’ bones red if they eat its roots.
I don’t know how well that little anecdote would be received nowadays by, say, people in the local pub sitting around with a pie and pint! Conversely, at the Victoria Sponge Competition of the local Ladies Guild over tea and cucumber sandwiches!
Of course, it does make excellent tinder and can start and feed a fire for a long time.
Safety Note about the Cleavers Plant
There isn’t much data about the plant’s side effects, perhaps due to its limited use in food and medicine.
It should be a rule for a person to always ask a doctor for advice before using herbal medicine and altogether avoid using it during pregnancy or breastfeeding as a precaution.
Related Snippets About the Cleavers Plant
For What Purposes Can You Use the Cleavers Plant?
• We’ve already discussed its use as a slimming aid – being so, resulting from its diuretic properties. Also, we’ve mentioned that the Cleavers plant’s most common use is as a cleansing herb for treating ailments from the kidney to primary urinary disorders, general infections, and itching of the skin, anywhere on the body. It is also most excellent for skin conditions like eczema.
• If you’re using blood thinners, then avoid this plant and do not ingest it.
• If you are a Diabetic, then avoid this plant and do not ingest it.
How Do You Use Fresh Cleavers?
• Pick the berries and leaves from the Cleavers when they are bright green and fresh and make tinctures: (fill a jar ¾ way with the fresh chopped herb. Fill this jar you have chosen to the top, using vodka, put the lid on, and leave it safely in a dark place for at least one month – shaking it occasionally. Then strain, bottle, and label.
Can You Dry Cleavers?
• The dried leaves don’t do nearly so well as the fresh ones, and they are still extremely rich in vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, the lymphatic and diuretic properties don’t hold up well under drying.
Therefore, when it comes to dried cleavers, care must be taken to dry the plant quickly. You can cut the stalks into small pieces and fill a jar with the stems, stalks, and flowers and cover with alcohol.
Why Are Cleavers Sticky?
• Cleavers originally got their name from their ability to cleave — as their hairy stem, and fuzzy seed structure does so quickly – or adhere to passers-by. Their branches and seeds stick to everything. They hop and cling onto your clothes when you out for a walk. They also attach themselves to the fur of your pet.
• By this method, they make their way back from a walk right into your garden.
Preserve Your Cleavers
• If you have Cleavers in your garden as I do, be sure to preserve some of it in oil or alcohol before the tiller comes through. This plant doesn’t maintain its phytochemicals very well once dried. It’s essential to create medicine as soon as you can after picking it.
So, I realize now that I’ve had a lifelong association with Cleavers – otherwise known to me as Burrs.
Born and raised in the UK (although now living in South Africa for decades), continuous visits to the countryside, from being a small girl to a fully-grown adult, would find me returning home to the city covered from head to foot in these sticky, prickly Burrs.
They clung to almost every item of my clothing and even my hair. Most persistent little things that caused pain if you sat on them! And they were tough to remove!
I found it surprising when I learned that Cleavers sits firmly in the Herb Category, but now, I realize it makes the best sense.
Herbs are the most natural medicines for People.
Centuries ago, one could see the Nuns and Monks foraging for herbs to treat the local population’s illnesses.
They would make tinctures of this, and poultices of that were not just for the ‘common people.’
Indeed, even Noblemen and Noblewomen, together with Earls and Bishops, Knights and Princes of the Realm, searched for cures from the Nuns and Monks for what ailed them.
The royalty of all kinds, from different countries, sought to have their ailments treated by the Nuns and the Monks of the day. And their natural and healing concoctions made with the humble, healing herb!