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Cleavers: A most useful forest dweller

Cleavers is an easily missed plant which can be found almost all year round except in the coldest month of the winter. Many view it as a noxious weed and it is still being debated as to whether it is native to North America. It goes by many names, but the one I use is Cleavers. Others may know it as bedstraw, goosegrass (geese love to eat it), clivers, catchweed "robin-run-the-hedge", and sticky willy. It is an annual, herbaceous plant and in the family Rubiaceae. It is closely related to another common herb called Sweet Woodruff, which is used to enhance the taste of wine. Interestingly, it is also a relative of coffee!

The tiny seeds can be roasted lightly and then used as a non-caffeinated coffee substitute. Just like Chicory, Cleavers was probably used by settlers when coffee was not available or unaffordable. Cleavers had another much more important use in the spring. The new shoots were used in a traditional spring tonic because the shoots were rich in vitamin C. The winter months in the mountains were long and sources of vitamin C were few. The development of Scurvy was common and plants that emerged early in the spring were incorporated into a “tea” that replenished vitamin C. Cleavers were used along with Spicebush, Black Birch and Sassafras root. The cooked shoots and leaves were eaten as a vegetable dish and the root could be used as a red dye. All in all, this plant is a very good one to know about!

Once you learn to recognize cleavers you will notice it all around you. It is a weak-stemmed, sprawling plant that grows into dense, sticky masses supported by other plants. The stem is square and bristly and about every 2-3 inches along the stem you will find a whorl of six to eight narrow, lanceolate leaves that are also covered with tiny hooked bristles. All these bristles enable the plants seeds to hitch rides on passing animals and humans. Cleavers do produce a small, insignificant, simple white flower. It quickly matures into the tiny seeds.

Cleavers make a great sieve because all the tiny little bristly hooks make the stems link together like a net. Historical documents indicate that ancient Greek shepherds would use the barbed stems of cleavers to make a "rough sieve", which could be used to strain milk. Carl Linnaeus later reported the same usage in Sweden, a tradition that is still practiced today.

The entire cleaver plant was one of the several herbs that were once used to stuff mattresses. They would dry the plant first to prevent mold. The dried cleavers also had a lovely sweet fragrance.

I have never seen Cleavers anywhere along the shaded upper loop of the double loop trail in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The lower loop now receives much more light than it did previously. This is just one way the death of the huge hemlocks altered the microenvironment. Cleavers love heavy soil high in Phosphorous and Potassium and along the lower loop cleavers can be easily found. In fact, it may find you! If you look at your hiking socks and pants you may find the small, sticky little seedballs hitching a ride on you.

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