CLEAVERS OR GOOSEGRASS - NOT ONLY A CHILDREN'S PLAYTHING: HISTORY AND HEALTH BENEFITS OF GOOSEGRASS
Cleavers is a plant with burrs that is known by many local names, such as Robin-run-the- hedge, stickywilly, stickyjack, catchweed, stickweed, stickyleaf and a good many more. I always knew it as goosegrass and would happily pick some and throw it on my father’s or grandfather’s back during our walks. They would then walk through the village with it on their backs, but no one batted an eye lid because this was a common sight. The plant has hooks on its burrs, and the leaves are stick too, it would seem, so they can catch on to sheep as they graze and so disperse themselves and ensure the species survives. The name aparine comes from the Greek aparo means to cling or to seize, so was clearly given due to the burrs.
Goosegrass got this name because geese love it and so do poultry and domestic animals such as horses, sheep and cows. That being said it can’t be too harmful for people as horses in particular are somewhat choosy in selecting the plants they eat. Cleavers is a member of the Rubiaceae family of plants which makes it a relation of Kadamb, coffee, cinchonca, and a close relation of sweet woodruff, madder and yellow bedstraw. It has been used in traditional systems of medicine wherever it is native, and it has a wide range, as it is indigenous to
Europe including the British Isles, Asia, North America, , Mexico , Iran and doubtless to other countries too. Australia
The herb, but not the hairy seeds has been used to flavour soups and stews and the dried roasted seeds are said to be a good coffee substitute (better than the seeds of yellow dock, I’m told), like dandelion root and chicory roots. The root has been used for a red dye, and it is said that if birds should eat the root it will turn their bones red. It has also been used like spinach and sorrel as a leaf vegetable.
The herb can be made into a tisane, and used as a very potent diuretic, so it is best avoided by diabetics. It has also been used to treat urinary tract infections such as cystitis and the tisane or a decoction of the chopped green herb (not the roots) can be used as a skin wash to sooth inflammations and to clean and heal wounds. An ointment of the plant and the juice from it has been used for burns and scalds way back in the 14th century), but it has also been used for cancerous tumours and ulcers, and is said to be effective.
The tisane made from the plant should be made with only the green parts but the flowers if they are just blooming are OK to include too – these are white or perhaps may have a greenish tinge. Avoid the burrs though. You need an ounce of the chopped green herb to a pint of boiling water and should let the herb steep for 10 mins before straining and drinking either hot or cold. This can be used on the skin too. A decoction uses 3 ounces of chopped herb to 2 pints of water and should be boiled then simmered until the liquid is reduced by half. This should be taken in spoonful doses as it is a strong diuretic and a mild laxative. So be warned! The decoction has been used to treat glandular fever and ME among other diseases. The tisane is said to be good for colds as the plant contains vitamin C in the form of ascorbic acid.
The plant contains asperuloside which is converted in the body to prostaglandins which act like hormones that stimulate the uterus and the lymphatic system. It also contains tannin, flavonoids, polyphenolic acids, alkanes, iridoids and anthraquinones. The pharmaceutical industry are currently interested in Cleavers but there has so far been little published research on this plant.
One piece of research by M. Aman Khan, Jehanzeb et al. April-June 2008 “Hepatoprotective Effects or Berberis lyceum, Galium aparine and Pistacia integerrima in Carbon Tetrachloride (CCL4) – Treated Rats” Journal of Post Graduate Medical Institution Peshawar Pakistan, concluded: -
“…a mixture of Berberis lyceum, Galium aparine and Pistacia integerrima have hepatoprotective effects. These medicinal plants have more effect as curative agents rather than protective ones.”
(Berberis lyceum is a member of the Barberry family, the Indian Barberry or kushmal or Ishkeen in Urdu, while Pistacia integerrima is an Asian species of pistachio tree. The study was looking into the traditional uses of these plants.)
The ancient Greeks called this plant philanthropon, lover of man because of its clinging nature, and shepherds used the stalks to sieve their grain and liquids, according to Dioscorides who wrote in the 1st century AD. It has also been used in
in times past as a sieve with the stalks being made into a mesh. Parsimonious Pliny said that cleavers was good to add to “a little mutton and oatmeal” if you wanted to lose weight or stay slim. Gerard, the 16th century herbalist, who was well-versed in the treatments of Dioscorides and other ancient medical text writers, said that the plant was useful for the treatment bites of snakes, spiders and other venomous creatures, while Nicholas Culpeper writing in the 17th century recommended the juice form the plant as being good for earache. Sweden
Native Americans used this herb to treat STDs such as gonorrhoea and women used the infusion in their baths to ensure they were successful in affairs of the heart. They also believed that it helped hair grow long and used it as a hair tonic.
The plant has been used for many things and although there is not very much scientific evidence as to its efficacy yet, that seems set to change.