Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Normally I write about herbs that have been extensively researched so as to illustrate just how much evidence there is for modern herbal practice. Sometimes, though, a herb is truly underrated and deserves to be mentioned purely because of the scarcity of scientific research to back it up.
Such is the case of Cleavers. Like most herbalists, I often marvel at how effective this plant is in treating so many different conditions, and how quickly it seems to act, considering it can be found in every hedgerow in England during the spring and early summer.
For the long-term sufferer of allergic and non-allergic rhinitis or sinusitis, it is definitely my favourite in terms of alleviating chronic congestion and preventing infection. It is also used successfully for childhood eczema, tonsillitis and ear infections, acne rosacea and leg ulcers in the elderly.
How Cleavers works: the lymphatic system
Traditionally-speaking, cleavers is a lymphatic or depurative herb – it acts on the lymphatic system, which is a sort of parallel cardiovascular system.
The arteries branch out into smaller and smaller capillaries in order to deliver oxygen & nutrients to far corners of the body. When the capillaries are only one-cell thick, nutrients and oxygen leak through the walls and into the clear tissue fluid in order to be taken up by cells.
Cells also leak waste products into this fluid, but it doesn’t go back into the bloodstream – it’s taken away by the lymph vessels and cleaned up by white blood cells on the way back to the heart, where the clean fluid rejoins the bloodstream.
Cleavers is thought to promote this healthy flow of lymph, helping to cleanse the blood of impurities, reduce swelling and prevent congestion in tissues throughout the body. It also has a reputation for shrinking tumours, both benign and malignant, and removing nodular growths of the skin.
Cleavers as a springtime herb
“It is wonderful how strong and healthy you will become (on taking cleavers juice mixed with spring water)” – The Physicians of Myddfai, 13th century.
Although there has been a lack of modern interest in the herb, ancient herbalists never shied from extolling the virtues of Cleavers. It was a common ‘spring tonic’ herb, along with nettles, dandelion root and burdock root. Believed to aid the transition from winter to spring, this was an idea that perhaps originated from the fact that our ancestors would eat mainly meat during the winter, and would hence benefit from a big dose of vitamin C once the foliage started to appear.
“It is a good remedy in the Spring, eaten… in water-gruel, to cleanse the blood, and strengthen the liver, and thereby to keep the body in health, and fitting it for that change of season that is coming” – Nicholas Culpeper, 1653.
A traditional spring tonic can be a great ally in the fight against allergy and sinus congestion, through its general cleansing and immune-boosting effect.
Nettles are also depurative and contain anti-histaminic properties, while dandelion and burdock act on the liver and bowel flora, an important part of an holistic strategy to combat allergy in the long term.
Pick enough herbs and roots to fill a large amber glass jar and cover with vodka. Leave for 4 weeks in a cool, shady spot, then strain and bottle… Take one tablespoon twice a day.
Cleavers and plantain tea
A simpler remedy for hay fever and chronic sinus congestion, and one you can whip up in seconds, is cleavers and plantain tea. Plantain is anticatarrhal, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting, and contains aucubin, a plant chemical that has shown anti-allergy activity.
Just put a big handful of freshly-picked herb (wash first if you’ve been picking near a city environment) into a teapot, pour on nearly-boiling water and let it infuse for 15-20 minutes with the lid on. You can drink it hot and then strain, cool and bottle the rest for drinking cold.
You can also add cleavers to soups and green smoothies. After a few days of cleaver-ing, you’re bound to feel lighter in the head and less runny in the nose – combined with dietary changes and a few other herbs, you’ll be well on your way to a symptom-free hay fever season.