Cleavers are annuals with creeping straggling stems which branch and grow along the ground and over other plants. They attach themselves with the small hooked hairs which grow out of the stems and leaves. The stems can reach up to three feet or longer, and are angular or square shaped. The leaves are simple, narrowly oblanceolate to linear, and borne in whorls of six to eight.
Cleavers have tiny, star-shaped, white to greenish flowers, which emerge from early spring to summer. The flowers are clustered in groups of two or three, and are borne out of the leaf axils. The globular fruits are burrs which grow 1-3 seeds clustered together; they are covered with hooked hairs which cling to animal fur, aiding in seed dispersal.
The species is native to a wide region of Europe, North Africa and Asia from Britain and the Canary Islands to Japan. It is now naturalized throughout most of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, Australia, some oceanic islands and scattered locations in Africa. It is considered a noxious weed in many places.
Effects on the body
Chemical constituents of Galium aparine include: iridoid glycosides such as asperulosidic acid and 10-deacetylasperulosidic acid, asperuloside, monotropein and aucubin, alkaloids such as caffeine, phenolics such as phenolic acids, anthraquinone derivatives such as the aldehyde nordamnacanthal (1,3-dihydroxy-anthraquinone-2-al), flavonoids and coumarins, organic acids such as citric acid and a red dye.
Galium aparine is edible. The leaves and stems of the plant can be cooked as a leaf vegetable if gathered before the fruits appear. However, the numerous small hooks which cover the plant and give it its clinging nature can make it less palatable if eaten raw. Geese thoroughly enjoy eating G. aparine, hence one of its other common names, "goosegrass". Cleavers are in the same family as coffee. The fruits of cleavers have often been dried and roasted, and then used as a coffee substitute which contains less caffeine.
As a tea, the plant acts as a diuretic and lymphatic.[verification needed][medical citation needed] As a lymphatic tonic, it is used in a wide range of problems involving the lymph system, such as swollen glands (e.g. tonsillitis).
Poultices and washes made from cleavers were traditionally used to treat a variety of skin ailments, light wounds and burns. As a pulp, it has been used to relieve poisonous bites and stings. To make a poultice, the entire plant is used, and applied directly to the affected area.
The asperuloside in cleavers acts as a mild sedative, and one study showed that cleaver extract lowers the blood pressure of dogs, without slowing their heart rate, or any other dangerous side effects. Ethnobotanist James A. Duke recommends a dosage of one ounce of dried leaves to a pint of water, 1 to 2 teaspoons of tincture, or 2 to 4 grams of the dried herb in a cup of boiling water, three times daily.
Dioscorides reported that ancient Greek shepherds would use the barbed stems of cleavers to make a "rough sieve", which could be used to strain milk. Linnaeus later reported the same usage in Sweden, a tradition that is still practiced in modern times.
In Europe, the dried, matted foliage of the plant was once used to stuff mattresses. Several of the bedstraws were used for this purpose, due to the fact that the clinging hairs cause the branches to stick together, which enables the mattress filling to maintain a uniform thickness. The roots of cleavers can be used to make a permanent red dye.
The anthraquinone aldehyde nordamnacanthal (1,3-dihydroxy-anthraquinone-2-al) present in G. aparine has an antifeedant activity against Spodoptera litura, the Oriental leafworm moth, a species which is considered an agricultural pest. The Acari Cecidophyes rouhollahi can be found on G. aparine.
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