Why I’m just wild about ‘sticky willies’ and their many benefits

Fiann Ó Nualláin gets to grips with the fascinating backstory of the Cleaver ‘sticky back’ weed

Cleavers or Sticky-backs are a sure sign of fertile ground in the garden. Pictures Dan Linehan

I am having a bumper harvest of cleavers this year. Okay, I know the majority of gardeners view it as a weed and so ‘harvest’ sounds plain wrong — but I don’t think of it as a weed. It’s not quite a crop but it is useful to how I garden — which is to be chemical-free and to reap the benefits of every plant that finds its way in. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is one of the weeds I welcome, for its horticultural and medicinal benefits and its story too.

Plants, even the ones we often dismiss as weeds, have fascinating backstories. Cleavers get their common name for their reputation to cleave to — as their hairy stem and fuzzy seed structure does adhere easily to passers-by — so their stems and seed may stick to your clothes or the fur of your pet and make their way back from a walk, right into your garden. What a cool way to disperse the next generation — hitchhike. A sneaky trait, but you’ve got to admire efficiency and tenacity.

The botanical name also reminds us of its gripping nature as in the Greek derived aparine meaning to “lay hold of” or “seize”. Traditionally cleavers were employed for a grip of a different nature — woven in to sieves to strain impurities from milk. As kids, my friends and I took advantage of those Velcro-like hairs and played a ‘throw and tag’ childhood game with the stems as we often did with the darts of flowering grasses.

The cleaver game was called ‘sticky willies’ — I know, sounds a bit troubling now, but the name was around before we found the game.

I am a bit of a fan of wild beverages and forage-knowledge, so I appreciate that Galium is a relative of coffee and alongside chicory (Cichorium intybus), makes one of the more superior coffee substitutes – the roasted seed rather than the roots are my preference. Galium has a Greek etymology linking to ‘milk’ and the selection of that name for its nomenclature indicates its connection with the dairy industry — not just as a sieve tool but also for centuries it has been employed as a curdling agent in yoghurt and cheese production.

The plant is grazed by fowl and farmyard animals – hence the colloquial name of goosegrass. The seeds and green leaves can provide a staple chicken fodder and as fodder crop for other poultry, cattle, sheep and horses. While as a human food stuff, soups and juices are known, but are more remedial than culinary (a touch too bitter for most palates). So if your sustainability has you keeping poultry, then this weed is better in their feed than in the compost bin.

By way of a note on human consumption: because of the high tannin content, cleavers in any consumable form, make a powerful astringent and amongst its active components, it contains coumarins which thin the blood and asperuloside which can be converted into prostaglandins that stimulate the uterus and affect blood vessels.

All those traits can be utilised remedially, but as a culinary addition or for extended medical usage, it is generally advised to use for only two weeks at a time, and pause for one or two weeks before using again.

I am a fan of cleaver-infused water as a refreshing but also a ‘health’ drink. I harvest the aerial parts before flowering. Rinse under water and gently pat dry with a paper towel. Then I slice a few stalks and add to a glass of water. Place in fridge and leave overnight to infuse. Strain and drink. The cold infusion acts as a lymphatic tonic and flavours the water quite nicely too.

The plant is bursting with medicinal properties: antispasmodic; antiphlogistic; aperient; astringent; detoxificant; diaphoretic; diuretic; depurative; vulnerary; a noted lymphatic and urinary tract cleanser; refigerant; febrifuge; laxative; lowers blood pressure; sliming and tonic. The juice has stronger diuretic and laxative properties than infusions. It was once a common feature of cures for obesity and dropsy.

It is often noted that sap may cause contact dermatitis with sensitive skin but the plant also has a history of use as a cosmetic aid: A crushed leaf compress or a butter and juice salve has a remedial action on skin conditions and wounds. Cleavers are high in silica which is beneficial to hair, teeth and nails. The plant has been used as a cleansing lotion for acne and other conditions of the skin and as a cooled infusion to rinse dandruff prone scalps.

Compresses and poultices have been used to draw impurities from the skin. The guide recipe for lotion is a handful of pounded herb to be infused in a pint of milk. Crushed leaves neutralise acidic perspiration and helps soothe armpits. The infusion as a wash and detox-tea is beneficial to psoriasis, erythema and erysipelas. A decoction of the stems is said to address the redness and distress of sunburn.

The horticultural benefit of having this weed in your garden is that it indicates fertile soil. Furthermore it is a dynamic accumulator of sodium, silica and calcium — so great to make a liquid feed or soil drench. I am not saying cultivate it, but use it if you have it. If you can’t bear the thought of including a weed in your food, medicine or horticultural practices that’s ok too.

As a weed it does outcompete other crops for nutrients, water and sunlight and one of its drawbacks is that it hosts nematodes, insect pests and plant diseases, not least Verticillium; a fungal pathogen that causes vascular wilt of brassica. It is resistant to a number of herbicides but hot water/steam and flame work. The best method is manual extraction before seeds form.



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