Earlier in the year my attention turned to these little lovelies, trying desperately to grab (literally) my attention. I now find they have well and truly clambered climbed and cleaved, as the end photo taken yesterday 10th June2010 illustrates. (I hope!), I thought I would post my notes, and photo from way back in March.
As I roamed the local footpaths and the riverside picking nettles for soup, I couldn’t help but notice the tasty looking young cleaver leaves that appeared very healthy young specimens nestling amongst the wayside flora. ‘Can I eat them?’ was the question I asked myself. Better go find out.
This common cleaver, or ‘cliver’ as Mrs Grieve calls it, belongs to the Galium family, it is a bedstrw, and as such has family ties to the gentle little woodruff, and the rather lovely delicate ladies bedstraw. The cleaver or Galium aparine, (aparo; ‘to seize’) is by far the commonest member of the family. It is easy to spot by its quadrangular stems and wheel shaped leaves, which are covered in little hooked bristles, it is these hooked bristles which attach themselves, or cleave onto passing objects. This clever cleaver uses these little adhesive bristles to clamber up over and through nearby shrubs and vegetation; upward and outwards toward vanishing light as competition becomes fiercer. After the little flowers have vanished, the round seed heads also stick to anything that passes by, dogs, cats, foxes, and of course you and me. So this common annual has developed a very effective way of ensuring its survival. The Greeks named our little cleaver Philanthropon, 'love of man' ,due to its habit of hanging on so tightly.
So much for what it is, but the reason why I really started looking at it more closely was the thought, ‘what on earth I can I do with it?’
Its other name goosegrass indicates the fact that geese are rather partial to munching on it, not that geese munch, but you know what I mean. But then cows, sheep, horses and poultry are also partial to a nibble. But what about me? I cry. Yes I can eat it also. Richard Mabey in Food or Free, (1972) suggests boiling it when young, before the seeds appear. Culpeper indicates that ‘It is a good remedy in the Spring, eaten (being first chopped small, and boiled well) in water-gruel, to cleanse the blood, and strengthen the liver, thereby to keep the body in health, and fitting it for that change of seasons that is coming.’ They don’t make it sound very appetizing. But I thought I would tuck in and see what I thought. I cooked it very gently in a little water, just so that I could taste it without any other flavours intruding. I must say that for me, the flavour was far too strong, and not very pleasant. I am much happier munching on the hedge garlic that shares its wayside habitat.
So what else can I do with it? it also appears that the seeds can be used as a substitute for coffee when dried and roasted over a fire and ground to a powder, I won’t be trying that one however.. And it appears that these same seeds, in their green state, were once used to top dressmaker’s pins. The whole seed was said to be pushed onto the pin, to make a larger head. A bit like those big round ends on some pins today, which does make them so much easier to see and handle. I wonder how long they lasted for. I will try and remember to try that one later in the year.
Now the stems, according to Dioscorides, were used by Greek Shepherds to make a rough sieve. And Linnæus explains how the sieve was used as a filter to strain milk, seemingly to remove any hair. Yuk, hairs in your milk! And it seems that even the roots can be of use, these are said to produce a red dye,
The whole plant can be used medicinally if collected in May and June when just coming into flower and made into a tea. Mrs Grieve recommends partaking of the juice, but gives a warning, as it is also a diuretic, care should be taken if one is a diabetic. However for water retention, it is recommended, and, according to Mrs Grieve, the juice, acts ‘as a solvent of stone in the bladder.’ She also suggests that the same wine-glassful doses of a tea made from the dried herb will give one restful sleep and soothes the effects of insomnia. I take it she means a small wine glass, not my size of wine glass.
An added use for the cleaver according to Mrs Grieve, is in the treatment of most skin diseases; and this bit I find very interesting, ‘A wash made from cleavers is said to be useful for sunburn and freckles.’ She recommends using decoction of the fresh herb, and applying to the face ‘by means of a soft cloth or sponge.’ It can also be made into an ointment for scalds and burns, And Gerard recommends it as a ‘remedy for the bites of snakes’. However Culpeper narrows it down to ‘bitten by an adder’. Which as one is not likely to be bitten by a grass snake, it all becomes perfectly logical. He adds an interesting point, that it does this by ‘preserving the heart from the venom.’ It is also said that a broth will keep one ‘lean and lank, those who are apt to grow fat.’ I suppose if you eat nothing else it is bound to!
Cunningham places 'cleavers' as a feminine plant, oh dear, could that be due to its clinging nature. He suggests it has a use in work to do with relationships and commitments. Yep, can see that, he also says it has powers of protection, and tenacity. Well it certainly is tenacious, although a spindly little plant, in comparison with let’s say, brambles, and nettles, and even the bind weed. it certainly has survived in the hedgerow and wild and abandoned places with all the gusto of a deserted lover, clinging to the ankles of the one walking past. So I can see how Cunningham’s suggestion that it can be used in binding spells makes sense.
But then I find myself disagreeing with Cunningham (not unusually) as he places it under the dominium of Saturn, and Culpeper the moon. So we know that according to Agrippa plants of the moon have white flowers and turn towards the moon. Hmm, wonder if that is so? Those of Saturn are those that are never sown, and never bear fruit, they have a bitter taste and never dies with age. As cleavers are an annual, with white flowers, I think I will go along with Culpeper on this one.
As I hope you can see by this last photo, this plant certainly is tenacious and determined not to be out classed by other hedgerow competitors. This hedgerow is perhaps about 8ft tall, perhaps more, what an achievement in just a few months.