Cleavers used to be a known plant amongst children, as they would be thrown on friends’ jumpers for fun: the plant would get stuck in their jumpers, acting as a primitive Velcro.
They have also been a long standing enemy of the gardener, as cleavers are easily propagated through their sticky seeds on shoes and animal fur to grow at an impressive rate. However, they can be used as wild edibles. Geese can’t get enough, hence they are also known as 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, catch weed, scratch tongue or Lady’s bedstraw.
It is native to most places in Europe and north and western Asia and naturalised in many countries, considered an invasive weed in many places.
Their creeping straggling stems grow along the ground and over other plants, attaching themselves thanks to the small hooked hairy leaves and stems. They have narrow pointed leaves that arise in clusters and produce tiny white-greenish flowers clustered in groups, followed by globular seeds covered with hooked prickles.
Notes on edibility
Nowadays it’s regarded as survival food and it has been used to keep scurvy at bay. However, in the 17th century the leaves and stems were recommended to use in soups and puddings. There is no reason why we cannot explore further possibilities to use this invasive weed in our kitchens.
The tiny small hairs make them a bit inedible when raw. However, they can be cooked as a leaf vegetable when gathered before flowers and seeds appear. The seeds make this plant more interesting and apparently can make a substitute for coffee, but I have never tried myself.
Foraging in season
Cleavers are widespread in Britain and can be 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 it is advisable to pick new growth in early spring, before the flowers appear. Make sure they are young and tender and pick shoots up to 10cm long. Don’t bother with old stems, as they are too tough.
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
Lots of grit gets stuck in the tiny hooks of the plant and a good clean is advisable. Just wash under cold tap water and discard tough stems and any old leaves.
Seeds 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 to make a powder. It can be stored in jars for future use as a poor’s man coffee substitute.
Culinary uses and recipes
Cleavers have a mild flavour and can be used as a convenient vegetable to bulk up spring soups, stews and pies. Wilt them in butter and use in stir fries or omelettes. Use with nettles, sea beet and similar leaf vegetables.
Alternatively, I have read about roasting the seeds to produce a coffee substitute. This is still something in my to-do list, but I’m not expecting a great deal.