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‘Sticky Weed’ The plant with many names : by medicinal herbalist Vivienne Campbell

Vivienne Campbell Bsc (Hons) MNIMH is a qualified herbalist, foraging teacher and professional natural cosmetic formulator. She teaches classes in Ireland & UK and worldwide via her online video courses. Vivienne loves teaching people how to use herbs simply, effectively and joyfully. She believes it is everyone’s birth-right to know how to use common local plants as nutritious wild foods and health-enhancing natural remedies. You can discover more on her website: https://theherbalhub.com/

THE FASCINATING AND VARIED USES OF A COMMON SPRING ‘WEED’

Medical disclaimer: The information given here is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the care of qualified medical practitioners. In particular seek professional advice if you are pregnant, breast-feeding, have an underlying medical condition or are taking prescription pharmaceutical drugs.

Common Name: Cleavers    Latin name: Galium aparine

Also called Clivers, Sticky Willows, Sticky Willies, Goose Grass and Robin-Run-The-Hedge, whatever name it is you use for it, we all know this plant. It’s the sticky one that grows up through the other plants in the garden. Kids have loads of fun picking it and throwing it at each other.

It has numerous uses as an herbal medicine. It’s well-known to professional herbalists and is a commonly-used medicine in their clinics. For all it grows abundantly around us, it is often hard to find extracts of it available in health food shops. So if we want to use it ourselves then it’s much better to learn how to identify it and the various methods of using it to make remedies at home. Its medical properties are varied and it was once so highly thought of that it was even used in a major hospital right here in Ireland. Read on to learn more!

Parts used: all the bits above the ground (i.e. stem and leaves) when the plant is fresh and vibrant in the spring and early summer.

How to use it: the easiest way to use cleavers is to make tea or a herbal infusion. Pick the cleavers, wash it, put it in a pot, pour on boiled water. Let it infuse for 10 mins – 1 hour. Strain and drink. The amount that is recommended varies depending on the reason you’re taking it and whether or not you’re trying to treat a specific condition. However, most people benefit from it as a general tonic by drinking a cup or two of it daily when it is in season.

MEDICINAL PROPERTIES

To reduce swollen glands e.g. tonsillitis: Cleavers is one of a group of herbs that herbalists refer to as a ‘lymphatic’. This is because it is believed to stimulate the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a major part of the immune system: lymph nodes and glands such as the tonsils are the nuts and bolts of this system. Drinking and/or gargling cleavers tea can help to ease the pressure on the lymphatic system and to drain swollen glands.

For its ‘detoxifying’ actions: ‘Detox’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot nowadays with all sorts of products claiming to be ‘detoxifying’. However, part of the function of the lymphatic system is to help to remove metabolic waste products and to clean them up so that the waste products don’t continue to circulate around the body. So a healthily functioning lymphatic system should prevent a build-up of waste products in the body. Cleavers also supports the kidneys and is a diuretic. The kidneys help to filter waste products from the body so consuming cleavers regularly can help to support the elimination of waste via these organs. So yes, if you’ve been over-indulging recently or simply feel a bit sluggish then adding fresh cleavers tea in to your daily routine for a week or so should help to pick up your energy and give you a spring in your step.

To cool the body down: I also find that cleavers tea is a lovely remedy to help to cool down, especially for children who get very hot and sweaty. It is a safe and gentle herb and most people can benefit from drinking it.

TOP TIP: If you are prone to swollen glands then it can also be worth making an infused oil from cleavers. Infused or macerated oils are ways of extracting medicinal plants so that they can be easily applied to the skin. Cleavers infused oil can be very helpful when applied to swollen glands. Again, this is something that you will have to make yourself. I haven’t ever seen or encountered this extract being produced for sale by any herbal company. I teach how to make infused oils and all common herbal extracts for home use at my workshops, classes and in my online course.

SKINCARE & COSMETIC USES

Fresh cleavers make a really effective natural deodorant: The first time I made this I was astonished by how well it works. Having read about it in a foraging book by Pamela Michael I was intrigued and tried it out. I’ve been using natural deodorants since 1990 and this one works so much better than a lot of the ones that I’ve bought from the shops over the years. It’s a herbal decoction, a very simple extract to make. Take a large handful of the aerial parts (i.e. leaves and stalks growing above the ground). Put them in a pan. Pour on 1 litre of water. Bring to the boil, turn down, then gently simmer for 15 mins. Strain. When cool apply to armpits. If you have some left then pour it into a bottle and store it in the fridge. Sometimes I add a few drops of essential oil to this too e.g. rosemary but it works very well without this. You need to use it up within 2-3 days because it doesn’t contain a preservative so bacteria and mould will grow quickly. Alternatively, try using your left-over cleavers tea as a deodorant. If you’ve made a pot of cleavers tea and haven’t managed to drink it within 24 hours, then try applying that as a deodorant. This won’t keep for as long though because it hasn’t been boiled so pour away any unused infusion if it is more than 48 hours old. There’s a video demonstrating how to make this deodorant in my online course. I was absolutely delighted last year when Lise Andersen, a professional natural skincare formulator doing my online course managed to find a way of extracting it that gave it a 6 month shelf-life. She was so impressed with how well it works that she used this cleavers extract as the basis of the natural deodorant section of a recent publication by her on natural cosmetic formulating.

To reduce freckling: It seems to me that in centuries gone by, people were always trying to get rid of their freckles! Herbal books are full of recommendations for plants to try to reduce freckling. Cleavers is one such herb. It was recommended that the tea be used daily to wash the skin. I haven’t tried this because I like freckles and don’t really understand why people would want to get rid of them! If you try it yourself then do please report back to me on the results.

As a treatment to reduce fine lines and wrinkles: one of the students doing my online course swears by this use of cleavers! She makes a juice from them by whizzing up the little leaves with a drop of water, squeezing out the juice through muslin and then applying it to her face. She says the juice is deep green but soaks in very well. She read about this technique in the classic herbal book ‘Health Through God’s Pharmacy’ by Maria Treben, a well-known Austrian herbalist. Thanks so much to Sheila in County Clare, Ireland for bringing this little-known use of cleavers to my attention. It’s a great example of how much there is to learn, experiment with and try out. It’s such a joy to share our favourite techniques and recipes with each other. I learn loads from my students: it’s one of the reasons that I love to teach!

CLEAVERS MAKES THE BEST WILD ‘COFFEE’ I’VE EVER TASTED

This use might surprise you too. This one is for the summer, usually late July-early Sept. You know when the cleavers gets those little green sticky balls (quite often cats get covered in them)? Those green balls are the seeds. When they are ripe (beginning to dry out a little and starting to turn brown) I harvest them, wash them, leave them to dry, roast them in the oven and then grind them. They make the best herbal coffee that I’ve ever tasted (and I am a proper double-espresso drinker so I wouldn’t fob you off with any old rubbish!). Cleavers seed coffee has such a rich taste, with hints of vanilla in it I think. It’s nourishing and believed to give the immune system a bit of a boost. There’s a video lesson showing the whole process from plant to cup in the High Summer edition of my online course.

FORGOTTEN HISTORICAL USES

A remedy for bites: Old herbal books recommend cleavers for treating the bites of snakes, spiders and other venomous creatures. The sources I have read do not state whether this is taking cleavers internally or applying it externally so I can’t give any specific advice (or indeed speak from experience in this case, thankfully I haven’t been bitten by a snake so far). However, I mention it here on the off chance that one day this snippet of information may save your life should you find yourself bitten by something poisonous and are unable to reach a hospital! Which brings me on to the final thing about cleavers that I’d like to share with you today……

PROFESSIONAL USE IN HOSPITAL

Cleavers has been used to treat leg ulcers, even very stubborn ones that have refused to heal. Leg ulcers are common in the elderly and are notoriously hard to treat. They are made worse by poor circulation and inactivity. Fortunately there are many herbal treatments that can work well in poultice form and help to bring relief to this chronic condition. Poultices of fresh cleavers can be made. Regularly applying these poultices can encourage the skin to grow and healing to occur.

In fact, cleavers has such an excellent reputation for treating leg ulcers that it was once used by a doctor in St. Vincent’s hospital in Dublin. Back in 1883 Dr F J B Quinlan was so exasperated with how difficult it was to treat chronic ulcers and the issue of elderly people who had them being in hospital for months without gaining any relief that he decided to try out using cleavers on some of his patients. He sent his medical students out to gather cleavers to treat the patients and they started to get wonderful results even in the most severe cases. The medical team even managed to come up with a way of preserving the extracts so that some form of treatment was available when cleavers was out of season [you can’t pick most herbs in the winter because they simply aren’t growing then]. So impressed was he with the results that he wrote up his findings and sent them in to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and an extract from the article is available to view by CLICKING HERE.

It’s wonderful to read a doctor writing with such praise and passion for this simple, abundant and inexpensive herbal remedy. If only it was as easy to get permission nowadays to try out remedies in hospitals as it was back then, our hospitals systems might not be so over-whelmed!

To think that this is a plant that so many people regard as an irritating weed and spend time battling with in the garden. Just look at the list of useful and interesting applications of it that I’ve mentioned here today! And there are many more too. New research continues to be published about traditional local medicinal plants. It’s fascinating that there’s still so much to learn and discover.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Kim Walker May 27, 2019, 4:32 pm

    Great article! Cleavers is a favourite of mine too. I didn’t know about the wrinkle one, though I have Treben’s book, will check it out. You may be interested in the recent Linnean Society Podcast ‘Magic, myths, medicine and lost remedies’ which talks about research at Kew investigating the ulcer cure. They’d unsuccessfully used dried cleavers to test the remedy, but a herbalist set them right about using fresh spring herbs. They then found healing chemicals. Interesting stuff!

    • Vivienne Campbell May 29, 2019, 11:47 am

      Delighted you enjoyed it Kim! Yes please. Would love to read the research at Kew. Could you please email me the link? Hope all is well with you. x x

  • Fiona Waugh May 27, 2019, 9:00 pm

    As always a fascinating and informative and really practical article. I so feel the same way about herbal treatments being available in a hospital environment.. we can only hope one day.

    Thank you..that was lovely reading..and I didn’t know about the wrinkles either..

    • Vivienne Campbell May 29, 2019, 11:49 am

      Delighted you enjoyed it Fiona. There was a herbal hospital in the UK. It closed down after the NHS was set up because it couldn’t survive in a country that provided free healthcare. Kevin Orbell-McSean’s grandfather was involved in it (Kevin is an herbalist in Co. Cork, Ireland). I haven’t tried the wrinkles thing either, because I haven’t got any yet…if you see me with a green face one day you’ll know why!

  • Ansu May 29, 2019, 9:40 am

    Thank you Vivienne. Great read. I have trying to make tincture from Cleavers, is that ok to do? I’m just experimenting with it.
    I’m going to make the tea and put some mint in it too.
    Thanks again.

    • Vivienne Campbell May 30, 2019, 4:16 pm

      My pleasure Ansu. Absolutely delighted you’re getting so much from this. Yes, of course you can tincture cleavers. You can use alcohol (usually brandy or vodka) or vinegar (cider or white wine vinegar work well). Sounds like a lovely tea, with the mint to flavour it. I sometimes put in a pinch of rosemary or lemon balm with mine.

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