Meet Cleavers on a Spring Day
It’s early May and I am relishing the sunshine on my face and back after such a long, long winter. The fields and meadows are still largely dormant. The skeletons of last year’s sun-loving plants like Monarda and Hoary Vervain and Yarrow persist and we walk among them. The new growth is yet to shoot up. The children are with me and a couple of dogs. We cross the creek and walk up the slope and begin to move across the hillside. We are headed towards the little woods. Pasture is below us and above us is a stand of Quaking Aspen marking the transition between between forest and pasture. Behind the Quaking Aspen is the real forest, with the aged and majestic hardwood trees, ferns and moss, mushrooms and snails. That’s where the the native deep woods spring wildflowers grow, the Blue Cohosh indigo stem unfurling, the colonies of Wild Ginger, the Hepatica and Dutchmen’s Breeches and Anemone’s and all the other little white flowers of various species strewn about. This hillside we are headed to feels a bit less wild. There are cow paths instead of deer paths and the plants here do not mind humans or livestock tromping around. They are hardy and not fussy at all. The plants here are not rare or exotic, but they have a magic of their own. The perfume of Wild Plums and Apple trees fills the air. In a few weeks the petals will fall from the trees like snowflakes. The cow paths crisscross the hillside. The narrow paths cut through the Prickly Ash thickets making little tunnels that I have to duck beneath. We are looking for Morels, although it is a bit early yet. We don’t want to head back, it’s too perfect here. The Wild Strawberries are in bloom and I make a promise to myself to come back in a few weeks. Little purple Violets are everywhere. We stop to gather Cleavers. I use it often as medicine and now is nearly the perfect time to harvest. It will grow for a few more weeks, sprawling out over the earth where ever there is dappled or deep shade on the margins of deep woods. It will bloom inconspicuously, fruit and then wither away. By midsummer there will be little evidence that Cleavers grew here at all.
I show it to the children. We touch it. It’s so sticky. One of the most important identifying characteristic of Cleavers is that it is sticky. It’s sticky without being poky or picker-y and without leaving any sticky sap behind on your hands. That’s what Cleavers means–to cleave—an old-fashioned word that means to cling to. Cleavers is a member of the Gallium genus, of which there are ten species in Minnesota. This stickiness will help to differentiate Cleavers from most of it’s other relatives.
Cleavers has another name: Lady’s Bedstraw. When you see the word lady in a common name it usually refers to THE Lady, you know, The Virgin Mary,The Mother Mary. Plants have traditionally been woven into the fabric of both the mundane and the divine in cultures around the world. Plants play roles in origin and creation, stories, religious and spiritual stories and ritual and ceremony. Christians of Europe would gave plants roles in the stories from the Bible. stories. You may have heard that Judas the Betrayer was hung from an Elder tree, or that Hawthorn branches were used for the crown of thorns worn by Christ when he was crucified. As the story goes, Cleavers, or Lady’s Bedstraw was used to line the manger into which baby Jesus was placed when he was born.
Some say that the deer like to bed down and have their fawns in the Cleavers. I have heard that some Native people noticed this and use Cleavers as a tonic to promote a healthy pregnancy.
Other ID Characteristics and Harvesting and Medicine Making Considerations
Cleavers is one of the early plants to emerge out from under winter in the Upper Midwest. You will find it when the Violets are out and the Bloodroot and Marsh Marigold are blooming. The Motherwort and Catnip, of course, will be lush and green and midshin high already when the Cleavers comes out. Cleavers likes the shade. It doesn’t persist through the season but dies back when it gets hot and dry. So plan your forest forays to harvest Cleavers early or you may miss your opportunity.
It is a recumbent plant. It has weak stems and a little wisp of a root system and it reclines across the ground and other nearby plants. The stem of Cleavers is square, but it is not a mint. While all mints have a square stem, there are some non-mints with square stems as well. The leaves of Cleavers are arranged in a whorl. A whorl looks just likes it sounds…around and around. The leaves are arranged around the whole stem. They are not opposite from another, they are not alternate from one another, they are not basal (at the ground only) they are around the stem.
The flowers are white and they are so inconspicuous; blink and you’ll miss them. The fruit is a dry, papery round thing that always sort of surprises me by being bigger than I would expect from such tiny little flowers.
The aerial parts of Cleavers are harvested for medicine and you can harvest it during any stage of growth including flowering, gone to seed, as long as it is green and vibrant looking. This is such a common plant in Minnesota,many consider it a weed, although it is a native plant. One doesn’t have to be particularly concerned about the impact of your harvest on local plant populations.
You can make tincture out of Cleavers infused fresh in vodka or brandy. You can also dry Cleavers for use as a tea. Cleavers tastes exactly what you think an herb would taste like. It’s mild and “green” flavored, not particularly delicious like Linden Blossoms or Hawthorn, but not intense or strong flavored and is generally well tolerated by those who can’t abide strong, bitter or acrid flavors.
Cleavers is Superb Moistening Medicine for the Lymph
Energetically, Cleavers is moistening and is used to treat people who are dry. In Traditional Western Herbalism and other holistic systems of medicine around the world, people are described according to the patterns they manifest. Sometimes this kind of thinking and categorizing is called energetics or it may be called constitutional medicine. Dry people have trouble with their liquid economy, including, water, fats and oils. They may have trouble digesting or absorbing fats and oils and water may seem to flow through them instead of reaching and being retained in the places it needs to be in the body. Dryness will show up as a dry tongue with a lack of saliva or in extreme cases a withered look to the tongue. Dry people may know they are dry and may feel dry. The skin may be dry and prone to skin problems like eczema, some types of acne or other rashes and conditions. Nails and hair may be weak and brittle. Aches and pains in the joints may be common and arthritis as people age. Soft tissues needs to supple and flexible and joints needs to be bathed in the appropriate amount of fluid. Nervousness and anxiety is sometimes present. This is the the thin, dry, nervous type that I sometimes talk about in my classes. Not all nervines are alike and Cleavers is not likely the plant for ADHD in children, rage and anger, depression, confusion, spaciness or extreme panic attacks. Dry nervousness and anxiety is like a mild, simmering type of worry, that’s just always there vibrating in the background. Vaginal dryness may be present and sometimes other hormonal issues, like trouble getting pregnant. Dryness may manifest in the digestive tract causing dry constipation and many (although not all) dry folks are thin, because there is likely some malabsorption in the g.i. tract. There may be a tendency for lymph nodes to become swollen and hard and tender more often than others experience. Secondarily, there is often heat and inflammation present. Fluids are cooling or soothing and without these, heat goes unchecked.
There are many moistening remedies that can be used to help dry people. Common moistening plants you can grow or wildcraft in the upper midwest include Cleavers, Burdock, Red Clover, Black Walnut, Borage, Chickweed, Violet, Solomon’s Seal, False Solomon’s Seal, Sarsaparilla, Spikenard, Mullein and many others. Each one has a unique profile, with affinities to certain organs and certain conditions and has a set of indications that make it especially suited to an individual. Cleavers is a moistening remedy with a specific affinities to the skin, urinary tract and genitals and the lymphatic system.
Cleavers is at the top of my list for childhood eczema. Eczema is widespread among today’s children in a way that it certainly wasn’t when I was growing up. Inflammatory conditions and atuo-immune conditions are on the rise and many people turn to plant medicine and other holistic choices to find some relief and healing. Eczema frequently occurs with other symptoms including allergies and asthma, comprising a trio of illnesses characterized by hypersensitivity and allergies called atopic disease. In my practice, I find that many children with eczema also frequently have swollen lymph nodes and the tongue shows signs of lymphatic stagnation. Cleavers is one of the first herbs I reach for with these little people. I frequently combine Cleavers with other moistening herbs that help the lymph, skin and liver function well especially Oregon Grape Root, Burdock, G0ldenrod and Red Clover.(See my Children’s Materia Medica for a few choice indications for this list of remedies).
The lymph system is important to our overall health and well-being. It is removes waste from the waters of our body and is intimately bound up with our immune system. The lymph nodes are particularly vulnerable to dryness. When the lymph is not functioning optimally people may have chronically swollen and tender glands, they may be prone to infection and illness and slow recovery and slow wound healing. I consider Cleavers whenever a person tells me that they frequently have swollen glands, sore throat or tonsil or are frequently ill. A sluggish lymphatic system can contribute to a person feeling sluggish, slow, unmotivated or “stuck” in his or her life. Skin issues, particularly eczema, but also some acne can be relieved by helping the lymph to function well and relieve stagnation in the nodes.
The breasts are full of lymphatic tissue and in Traditional Western Herbalism almost all breast conditions and symptoms are treated with lymphagogues. There are many lymph remedies used for the breasts including Poke, Calendula, Violet, Chickweed, Red Clover and, of course, Cleavers. The three most common breast issues that the herbalist encounters are mastitis while breastfeeding, Fibrocystic Breast Disease/premenstrual breast tenderness and breast cancer. Cleavers can very safely be taken by the nursing mother who is prone to plugged ducts and mastitis. By itself it is unlikely to be enough to relieve an acute case of mastitis, but it is a safe and gentle adjunct and can easily be added to a healing tea blend for prevention.
Fibrocystic Breast Disease is condition characterized by benign lumps, pain and tenderness. Some women experience mild cyclical breast changes like tenderness and bloating during the second half of the cycle. Other women can find sizable, palpable lumps periodically in their breasts. Swelling may be present. I had one client with a very severe case of cyclical breasts changes whose breast were so swollen premenstrually that she had to have bras in different cup sizes for different times of the month. Treat the lymph with appropriate lymhagogues and in cases with lots of water retention consider adding some Queen Anne’s Lace. My mentor Lise Wolff teaches that Cleavers is specifically indicated for women with firm and fibrous breasts. Most of us women know that breasts come in different textures, so to speak, regardless of size. It’s actually pretty easy to observe at a glance. Some women have thin skin and soft, doughy type breasts and other women have firm, fibrous dense breasts. Lise suggests that Cleavers works the best for the firm and dense breasted women and recommends Violet for the soft, smooshy type. Vitamin E and Selenium rich foods or supplements may also be useful in FBD. Although I am not one of those who subscribes to the belief that caffeine is evil, in fact, I love my daily coffee, there does some to be a consensus that among those with cyclical breast lumps or tenderness that caffeine exacerbates this condition.
Many lymhagogue and alterative herbs have been traditionally used in the treatment of cancer and Cleavers is among these herbs. Other herbs that have been used in the treatment of breast cancer include Violet, Poke and Red Clover. I do not recommend treating breast cancer solely with Cleavers and it’s lymphagogue companions, but it is certainly a well-indicated, safe and gentle, traditional herb that could be added into one’s diet and healing routine when dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis.
Cleavers for the Mind and Spirit
Although Cleavers is not famous as a nervine, I have found that it does have that effect on the right person. I discovered this when I gave Cleavers to a woman with a dry tongue and signs of lymphatic stagnation who was also suffering from some worry and anxiety. She came back and told me that Cleavers was her Rescue Remedy and that she used it whenever she felt anxious. I now anticipate this reaction and have come to understand that you can treat worry and anxiety with moistening lymphagogues if that is at the root of the problem. We all intuitively understand that water is soothing. Imagine for a moment a warm bath, a relaxing dip in the hot tub, sitting by a waterfall, think about how that makes you feel. We also understand how other fluids like dietary fats and oils have a soothing effect. Think of comfort food and it’s soothing effect on your body and spirit, buttery toast or oatmeal, creamy, cool ice cream, tomatoes dressed in olive oil. In the dry person the soothing and comforting effect of fluids is reduced. In the dry person everything is raw, itchy, vulnerable, exposed, nothing is protected or coated. We can help bring a little soothing to the whole system by helping the person better use water, fats and oils.
Cleavers for the Kidneys, Urinary Tract and the Prostate
Cleavers also goes to work in the lower regions of the body. Cleavers has soothing and diuretic effect in the urinary tract system. It is a great herb to consider in formula for acute urinary tract infection. It’s overall safety makes it an excellent choice for use in pregnancy or with children. There are so many fine local plants for use with UTI: consider cornsilk and marshmallow for soothing and plants like Yarrow, Monarda, Juniper or Echinacea for getting rid of the microbes and plants like Nettle, Cleaver, Horsetail to help flush the tract and improve function overall.
Cleavers has also been used in cases of kidney stones. I do not have much experience in this area, but it makes sense to me. Kidney stones are little dried up bits of minerals and salts stuck together and we know that Cleavers and plants like it help moisten and soften. Most people report that passing kidney stones is quite painful and a relaxing plant with an affinity to the kidneys and urinary tract is certainly a good idea.
Cleavers is also known as a plant for the prostate and the urinary common symptoms that arise from prostate enlargement as men age, such as difficulty completely voiding, frequent and urgent urination, slow or dribbling stream of urine, frequent night waking. There aren’t a lot of plants that are used for the prostate, so add this to your mental list.
Cleavers is a harbinger or spring in Minnesota. Next spring you’ll want to make sure you will want to be sure to find a patch in your favorite wild or weedy shady area. It is delicate and gentle, yet very powerful and has many practical applications. It softens and moistens, mildly cools and and transforms stuckness into flow, much like the spring itself.