Cleavers, also known in the childhood with imaginative names as “sticky willy” or “stick-a-back”, have been always picked to throw them on friends’ jumpers. The plant would get stuck in the jumpers working as a primitive Velcro.
It has also been a long standing enemy of the gardener, as cleavers are easily propagated through their sticky seeds and grow at an impressive rate. However, they can be used as wild edibles. Geese know that very well, hence their alternative name goosegrass.
Description and species
Cleavers (Galium aparine) are annual plants in the Rubiaceae family that includes coffee among other plants. They are also known as goosegrass, sticky Willy, stick-a-back, grip grass, scratch tongue or Lady’s bedstraw.
They have creeping scrambling stems that grow along the ground and over other plants, attaching to them thanks to the small hooked hairy leaves and stems. The leaves have a very singular shape and appear in groups. They have white-greenish flowers clustered in groups of two to three, followed by greenish-purplish globular seeds covered with hooked prickles.
Notes on edibility
Lots of plants have been acclaimed by many herbalists for its health-giving properties and cleavers is no exception. I did not find any recorded use for this plant in the kitchen, but that does not mean is not edible.
The leaves taste “green” when raw, but the tiny small hairs make them a bit inedible. However, it can be cooked as a leaf vegetable when gathered before flowers and seeds appear. Cleavers are not exceptionally great but are very abundant and convenient to bulk up when cooking green soups, stews and pies.
The seeds make cleavers more interesting, because being part of the coffee family, can make a surprising substitute for coffee with no caffeine.
Foraging in season
Cleavers are a common plant across Britain and are found in hedgerows, roadsides, woodland and gardens, featuring “transition zones” or margin areas where one type of landscape changes into another, as the seeds are involuntarily distributed when attached to animal fur or clothing.
They grow all year round but are at their best in early spring, when new leaves appear. Make sure they are young and tender and pick shoots up to 10cm long. Don’t bother with stems, as they are too tough, even when cooked.
They are easy to spot because they creep along other plants. They have a distinctive structure featuring whirls of six to eight leaves through the bare green stem that makes them difficult to confuse with any other plant. In case of doubt, throw them to your mate! If that gets stuck in his jumper, they are the right plant.
Storage and processing
Due to the plant nature of having tiny hairs, lots of grit gets stuck in the plant, making necessary a good clean under a cold tap water, discarding any old leaves. They are immediately available to use and don’t require more processing.
However, if you want to use the seeds as a coffee substitute, they need to be dried first in a dehydrator or on top of a radiator. Rub off the seed coats and roast them in the oven. Finally, run them through a coffee grinder and brew them up.
Culinary uses and recipes
Cleavers have a mild flavour and are used as a versatile vegetable to replace spinach. Steam the shoots or wilt them in butter. They pair with nettles and other green leaves and work well in soups and omelettes.
Raw leaves can be scattered in salads, but are best added into smoothies or juices with apple. Dried leaves are brewed into herbal tea. As said above, ground dried seeds can be used to make a coffee substitute.