Galium aparine, commonly known as cleavers or sticky willy, is a herbaceous annual plant belonging to the Rubiaceae family. It is native to North America, Europe, and parts of Asia.
Cleavers are a climbing or creeping weed that can grow up to 1-3 feet long. It has whorls (helix) of slender, lance-shaped leaves and small, star-shaped white or greenish flowers. The plant’s stems, leaves, and fruits are covered in tiny, hooked hairs that give it a sticky or velcro-like texture, making it cling to surfaces and objects.
Native to Eurasia, cleavers have an extensive global presence—they are naturalized in most of North America and all U.S. states except Hawaii, Australia, Greenland, and some parts of South America. The species epithet aparine comes from the Greek word meaning “to seize.” In addition to cleavers, Galium aparine also goes by sticky willy, grip grass, catchweed bedstraw, goosegrass, sticky weed, sweetheart, and many other common names.
Cleavers have a history of use in traditional medicine. It has been used as a diuretic, a remedy for skin conditions, and to alleviate lymphatic congestion. 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. It is also used as a food source in some cultures. The tiny fruits can be dried and roasted to make a coffee drink—Galium aparine, after all, belongs to the Rubiaceae, or coffee family.
Young shoots can be added to salads and eaten raw, though you might prefer to skip the bristly texture and boil them first, the same way you would prepare stinging nettle.
The plant’s hook-like bristles soften when boiled. its chopped leaves and stem can be made into soups and stews, and the tender shoots can be boiled and buttered as a vegetable.
Cleavers can be found in a variety of habitats, including hedgerows, woodlands, meadows, and disturbed areas. It is known for its ability to thrive in different environmental conditions. You might find cleavers in moist, shady areas, scrambling up nearby shrubs and plants they use to lift themselves up closer to the sun.
In Europe, the dried, matted foliage of the plant was once used to stuff mattresses. Several of the bedstraws were used for this purpose because 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. Many insects feed on cleavers including aphids and spittlebugs.
- A poultice is a traditional remedy consisting of a soft, moist mass typically made from various substances such as herbs, clay, or bread, applied directly to the skin to alleviate pain, inflammation, or infection. The purpose of a poultice is to draw out toxins, reduce swelling, and provide localized relief to the affected area, making it a time-honored treatment for wounds, boils, insect stings, and other skin ailments. The moist nature of a poultice helps create a soothing and therapeutic effect by promoting heat, moisture, and the absorption of herbal or medicinal properties through the skin. Poultices have been used for centuries in various cultures as a simple and effective form of external herbal medicine. [Back]
- Aphids, scientifically known as Aphidoidea, are small, sap-sucking insects that belong to the order Hemiptera. They are characterized by their soft bodies, often in shades of green, brown, or black, and pear-shaped appearance. Aphids are notorious garden and agricultural pests, as they feed on plant sap by piercing the plant’s tissues with their needle-like mouthparts, causing damage to crops and ornamental plants. These insects reproduce rapidly, with many generations produced within a single growing season. They are also known for excreting a sticky, sweet substance called honeydew, which can attract other pests and promote the growth of sooty mold on plants. Various control methods, including natural predators, insecticidal soaps, and neem oil, are used to manage aphid infestations in agriculture and horticulture. [Back]
- Spittlebugs, or froghoppers, are a group of small insects belonging to the family Cercopidae. They are named for the unique protective foam nests, often resembling spittle, that their nymphs create by mixing air, water, and a sticky substance excreted from their abdomen. These foam nests help shield the nymphs from predators, desiccation, and temperature fluctuations. Spittlebugs are typically found in grassy areas and feed on plant sap using their piercing-sucking mouthparts. While they can be a nuisance in gardens and crops, their impact on plant health is generally minimal. In cases of severe infestations, insecticidal soaps or natural predators can be employed for control. [Back]
- Grieve, M. (1971). A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, & Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses (Vol. 1). Dover Publications.
- “Weed of the Month: Cleavers” (April 25, 2022) https://www.bbg.org/article/weed_of_the_month_cleavers
- Chevallier, A. (1996). The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. DK Publishing.
- “Galium aparine” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galium_aparine
- Foster, S., & Duke, J. A. (2014). Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- “cleavers (goosegrass)” https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/cleavers-galium-aparine