Backyard Apothecary – Cleavers

It’s not hard at this time of year to be in awe of our green earth. Everything is budding or blooming and leaves are reaching for the sky. Outside in my yard I’ve been watching the cleavers creep their way up the fence. This lovely, clinging plant amazes me. It’s whorls of leaves surround a square stalk, and all of it is covered in hairy little hooks, the inspiration for velcro. It will stick to your skin, and could scratch you if drawn too quickly across your flesh, but inside it’s a tender and delicate plant. It grows tall where it can, clumping together and propping itself against anything nearby. 

Photo by Rose Dickson
Photo by Rose Dickson

  Though cleavers are completely edible raw, bits of it will stick to your tongue and the back of your throat when you try to swallow it, though I always try just a little bit each year. Even cooked, the little barbs don’t really soften, but I harvest this plant nonetheless, to tincture and dry for teas. This is because the weed is a powerful stimulant for the lymph system. I use it when I’m feeling generally sluggish, have tender and red tonsils, or when I have any flu or infection that causes my glands to swell. Cleavers encourage the flow of lymph fluid through our glands, which in turn clears toxins. Susan Weed recommends it for painful, swollen breasts, such as those that come with PMS or fibroids, and also edema or any other hot swelling in the body. Of course, please do your own research to make sure any herb is right for you. Cleavers are mildly blood thinning, which can exacerbate certain pre-existing conditions, such as hemophilia.

  Outside in the spring sunshine, and watching the cleavers once again, I am reminded of the importance of community. The cleavers rely on each other and their neighbouring plants for support as they grow up towards the sun. I remember that the first website listed in an internet search for cleavers described them as a pest plant in cereal crops. I can see the attraction for cleavers to the tall, strong grain stocks. I anthropomorphize cleavers in my mind as an unorthodox and eccentric person, someone who people might find irritating, always hanging around the fringes. In time, that person proves they have deep insights and can offer real help when it is needed. Not only are they tagging along, seeming to support themselves socially on the scene, but they are in fact also helping to support it in many ways. 

  Coming out of this daydream, I get down on my knees and look closely at the cleavers. I breath in the air around them. We are now exchanging molecules. I listen carefully for what those molecules are telling me. They say, “be patient.” Ha! They tell me they love the sunshine, and are enjoying the company of all the dandelion flowers around them. (No, I’m not on drugs, and I highly recommend this exercise of breathing with the plants and listening to what they have to say.) I thank them for being there, and tell them I’ll be back later, when their leaves are spread out like green flowers around their stalks, their little white flowers are blooming, and their tiny, green, testicle-like pairs of seeds are budding. 

  I remember one summer many years ago when I watched my shaggy dog come running out of a thicket, so covered in those seeds she looked like a lizard. The entire lawn seems to be laughing as I walk back into the house to write this, and looking down I see a branch of cleaver has attached herself to my leg. “Don’t forget us!”, she calls up to me.


Rose Dickson is an artist and writer with a passion for natural health. A self-taught herbalist who specializes in local, urban wild-crafting and do-it-yourself medicine.