Friday, March 11, 2016

Foraging: How to Find, Identify, Prepare and Eat Wild Cleavers Weeds





Cleavers (Latin name: Galium aparine) are extremely easy plants to ID, in fact, you probably know them already if you spend much time in the woods or the fields.  They grow throughout most of the U.S., certainly across the lower 48, and also across much of Canada and Mexico. They originate in Europe and Asia, and have been introduced to Australia. I am not sure about South American growth, but basically you can find them almost anywhere.

In addition to being easy to find, abundant, and having medicinal qualities, they taste pretty good. . . If you can get past the texture. That's a pretty big IF.   I'll share with you tips on how to find,  harvest, identify, and prepare cleavers in a way that will help you get past their weird textural issues.

Identification difficulty: Beginner

A note of caution: many people are allergic to cleavers. Use more caution than with most wild plants: please sample only a very small amount at first, and it's worth it to take some time to do a skin test. Also, cleavers may work to stimulate uterine contractions in women, so don't eat them if you are pregnant, may become pregnant or nursing. Finally, people on high blood pressure and/or blood thinning medications should avoid cleavers. More on all this below.









Cleavers quick history and non-edible uses


Make sure your Galium has 6-8 leaves at each
"whorl" on the stem.  This will help separate it from
other Galium varieties.
Cleavers get their name from their ability to stick to things. To "cleave to" once meant "to adhere to" and "cleave apart" meant to tear apart, but these days we mostly forget the first meaning, and cleave today generally means "to separate".

Aside from edible and medical uses, cleavers have many historical uses. They are a favorite food of geese, giving them one of their other common names: goosegrass. When dried, cleavers have a light, fresh, pleasant scent, and their tendency to form tangled mats with plenty of sir trapped with made them rather cushiony, and their sticky properties aided them to help keep their form. For these reasons, cleavers were preferentially mixed with straw to fill mattress, leading to another common name: bedstraw.

When matted or woven loosely together, cleavers can be used to strain milk, a practice that is apparently still used in some parts of the world.

I've heard a rumor that cleavers inspired the maker of Velcro, but then I've also heard that it was burdock which inspired him. Either way, cleavers are sometimes called by their "sticky" nicknames: Velcro weed, sticky weed, and sticky-willy. I imagine that last one is only used by people under 6 or over 60.










Cleavers medical uses

Cleavers have a long history of medicinal uses as well, and many of those are now being verified scientifically. When ingested fresh, cleavers act as a diuretic, and help with kidney function and health. Fresh or dried, cleavers have anti-coagulant effects when eaten, and may help lower blood pressure. This is why you do not eat cleavers if you are already on blood thinning or high blood pressure medications.

In a survival situation, a mat of cleavers pressed against a wound can help is the flow of blood better than pressure alone.

Native American women sometimes ate cleavers to help prevent pregnancy. With this information, we can infer that the plant may stimulate uterine contractions, and for this reason, can't be recommended for women who are, may become or are trying to get pregnant.



The tiny, hooked hairs of cleavers allow it to stick to other plants, hair, clothing and fur.
This gravity defying feature is an essential identification tool.

Identifying Cleavers: Galium aparine*

There are many Galium plants growing in the Americas and Europe, almost all are used medicinally or as an herbal flavorant, but some are toxic in large doses, and still others are endangered (especially some of the Californian varieties). Galium aparine, aka cleavers, is the best known, and most abundant edible member of the Galium Genus. We'll talk about how to "weed out" those other varieties as part of the identification process.  

The hairs are pretty hard to see, this is the best shot
I got of them. But you can sure feel them!

  1. Cleavers plants have leaves that grow in "whorls", which is to say that they grow out from the stem in a star-like way. The leaves do not have petioles; petioles are stems for leaves.
  2. Each "whorl" of leaves on cleavers have 6-8 leaves. More or less may indicate a different Galium variety.
  3. The stems of cleavers are very angular or square. They edges will feel almost sharp.
  4. Both the leaves and stem of cleavers are covered in small, fibrous hairs, which actually end in tiny hooks. The seeds, when present, will also have these hooked hairs. These hooks help the plant stick to fabric, hair, fur, and other plants. It's important to find the hairs on both the stem and the leaves; some other Galuims have smooth leaves.
  5. Individual cleavers plants can grow to be 2-3 feet long, however, they rarely appear to be more that 6-7 inches off the ground, as they grow horizontally along the ground. For this reason they often form dense mats of many plants together.
  6. The leaf shape of cleavers verses other Galiums is subtle, but essential for identification. Each leaf is thin, and wider at the end than it is in the middle or near the stem. (Some other Galium varieties are widest at the middle.)  The end of the leaf is rounded, or rounded with a tiny point at the very end. Though there may be a point at the end of a round end, the overall shape should not be "pointed".
  7. When in flower, cleaver blooms are small, white and nestle-in with the leaves, and not a large plume of blossoms off the end of the plant, as with some other varieties of Galium. 
  8. Cleavers do not branch, the entire stem is one long piece. If your plant branches or splits into two stems at a whorl of flowers, it's a different variety of Galium.

Young cleavers plants, note how round the leaf edges are, and the color is generally darker and richer.
The hairs won't be sticky at this age, but you can still feel them.

Young Cleavers

When very young, cleavers plants will be much shorter, only 4-6 inches long. The leaves will still grow in a characteristic "whorl" of 6-8 leaves and you will still be able to feel the hairs on the leaves and stems. However, the leaf shape will be much more rounded, the hairs will not be able to stick to anything yet, and the stems will not be as sharp, nor as definitively angular.

At this age, the plants are much more tender, have an easier to eat texture, and are generally just tastier, but they are also easier to confuse with other plants, especially other Galiums. If you live in an area where other potentially toxic or endangered Galiums grow, such as California, northern US States, and Canada, I suggest you not harvest Cleavers at this age.

Look-a-Like Plants

Using the identification points above, you aren't reasonably going to confuse cleavers with anything other than another Galium, all of which are pretty safe from an edibility standpoint, so as a whole the plant is very safe for beginners.

 Galium odoratum, known as sweet woodruff, is toxic in large doses, but is used medicinally and as an herbal flavorant in smaller amounts. Sweet woodruff grows in Europe, parts of Asia and as become naturalized in Canada and the Northern USA.

Sweet woodruff has different shaped leaves, the stem branches at leaf whorls, and the flowers are clustered at the top/end of the stems, instead of nestled within the leaf whorls.

*As always you should never accept anything you read on the internet without verifying it for yourself with either a local expert or several publications. Colors can vary from monitor to monitor, and images are not as clear as in printed materials. Personally, before I eat anything I verify it with at least 3 reliable sources. I have found this to be a remarkably good way of ensuring my safety when foraging. 

Sustainability

There is some debate as to wether cleavers are native to the Americas; the plant we have here now may be entirely introduced, a hybrid of an introduced and native varities, or wholy native. If it is introduced, then it seems likely that it did its eccological damage (If any)some time ago, and has now settled into its niche in the environment. It isn't actively causing damage, as a plant we call "invasive" would.

Despite this, cleavers are still considered noxious weeds in many states, and planting, transplanting, or even just transporting the plants or seeds may be restricted. Make sure you research your state's laws before you harvest.

Treat Cleavers with the respect you would give any plant that is quick to grow back, but which you want to be able to forage again in the future: take no more than 25%-50% of the patch, and only from where it is well-established or abundant.

Cleaver Allergies

Some people develop contact dermatitis, aka a rash or itchy areas of the skin, when touching Cleavers. If you are one of these people, please do not eat this plant. If you have skin allergies, there is an excellent chance you would also be allergic to eating it, and those allergies are more serious. 

Even if you don't develop a rash/itch, I recommend that you try cleavers for the first time in a small amount, and you might want to try a skin test. For a skin test, mash up a ball of plant matter the size of a marble or so. Rub this on the sensitive skin of the inside of the elbow, wait 48 hours, and see if you develop redness, irritation, itching or any other signs of an allergic reaction. If you do, please don't eat!

A dense growth of cleavers plants, at a perfect age for harvest.
Note: other plants growing in and through the cleavers.
Be careful that what ends up in your haul is all 100% identified as edible.

Eating Cleavers

Cleavers have a fresh green taste, kind of like young peas with the pod, and an element of grassiness, and a mild herbal flavor.

The younger cleavers are, the better. The plants become increasingly hair and fibrous as they age, also the stems (which make up most of the plant) get woody. However, if they are too young they are easy to confuse with other Galiums. In the picture above, this is a good age for harvest. The plants haven't flowered yet, and their color is a bright, vibrant green.

Because of the hooked hairs on cleavers, they must be cooked extremely thoroughly. I recomend boiling in a lot of water, working with small batches of plants, so the entire surface area is exposed to the boiling water. Once boiled you can theoretically use them as any cooked green, provided they aren't too fibrous.

If the plants are stringy even after boiling, I recommend any dish where you will be pureeing them, honestly I really only eat them pureed myself. Sauces, creamed soups, and pestos are all good.

You can tell if the plant is older, because it will have flowered and/or gone to seed, and the stems are harder, more brittle and the whole thing will be a darker, duller color. There are still options at this stage. If you wish to strip the leaves by pulling them off the stem, then you can cook and puree, and avoid the stringy stem. You won't get much volume this way, but it's an option. You can also try drying and roasting the seeds, which supposedly produce a low-caffine coffee substitute. Cleavers are related to coffee, but I don't drink coffee and this process has always seemed too laborious for my taste.

Cleavers of any age, fresh or dried, can also be steeped in boiling water as a tea. This tea will be rich in vitamin C, and also posses some of the other medicinal qualities of cleavers.

Final Notes of Caution

I can't stress enough: eat cleavers in very small amounts at first. Cook very thoroughly. If you get a rash when harvesting, don't eat them at all. If you experience scratchiness in the back of the throat, especially if the plants were very well cooked, don't eat them. Do a skin test.

Don't eat cleavers if you are pregnant, may become pregnant or nursing, or are on high blood pressure and/or blood thinning medications. 

12 comments:

  1. This was exactly what I was looking for! I just found cleaver in my garden and wanted to confirm it, so thanks for posting.

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    Replies
    1. Sorry I didn't see this message before Nikki, but I'm glad you found the post useful!

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  2. Great write-up; thank you. Do you know where I can find full details of the nutrient profile of Cleavers?

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    Replies
    1. Hey Tomás, I'm afraid I don't. I gathered info from several sources, including a few books.

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  3. While out camping I have collected and roasted the seeds over the camp fire. I crush them and put them in boiling water for a hot cup of coffee. The aroma is very rich coffee smelling but the taste is rather mild. Still when you are out camping and living off the land the smell of fresh brewed coffee is so rewarding, that is if you are a coffee drinker like I am.
    Thank you for sharing this info about Clevers, one of my friends in nature.
    Itomom@outlook.com

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    Replies
    1. It's great to know someone who actually uses this regularly. I can definitely see the value of the comforting aroma!

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  4. Great website! I have bookmarked it.
    Question: Would it be ok to blend cleavers in a powerful blender like for example Blendtec?
    Where are you located? I just wonder if you have the same weeds, growing at the same time as I do in my area. I am in southern Ontario, Canada.
    Thank you.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Alina

      Sorry about the delay in getting back to you, I've been slammed lately.

      I haven't actually tried blending cleavers, instead of using a food processor. I don't think it would be as good, but it would probably be ok. The power isn't really the issue, its actually kind of the opposite. In my experience, blenders have trouble with small things, and once boiled the cleavers are rather small. It's almost as if blenders can't "see" things like that. They just sort of toss them around, rather than pureeing them.

      If you do try it, I would use the puree setting, and let me know how it comes out. The good news is as long as you boil them first, with plenty of surface exposed as I described above, then they will be SAFE to eat. The pureeing only makes the texture better. So if it doesn't work out ideally, they are still edible.

      Let me know how your experiment goes!

      Liz

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    2. Oh and in answer to your other question, I'm currently in the US, North Texas, though up until 2015 I was living in New Jersey.

      Despite the distance, many of the plants will overlap, you should definitely be able to find cleavers, henbit, deadnettle, wood sorrel, ramps, garlic mustard, japanese knotweed, chickweed, violets, black locust and all of the mushrooms on my site. I'm not sure about curly dock or purslane. I know that sow thistles grow in Ontario, but not the prickly sow thistle I feature most often.

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  5. I use cleavers in tea when I have kidney or bladder problems. More information about the medicinal use of cleavers can be found on my website http://www.everygreenherb.com/cleavers.html

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