This time of year, when life is bursting from the ground with such abundance and gusto, one may wonder how to take it all in. The whimsical native forb called cleavers (Galium sp.) offers a special opportunity to literally drink the goodness of spring. Read on.
I was only vaguely aware of cleavers until I began to study herbal medicine and kept coming across accolades of praise for it from the herbalist community. I wasn’t even sure I could identify it. Much to my surprise, I found that cleavers grows abundantly on my property, I just hadn't noticed it. It grows in my woods and pops up here and there occasionally in the more cultivated gardens closer to my house. Now, at my invitation, it grows in one of my herb raised beds. I sowed the seeds of Galium aparine in late winter so that I could be absolutely sure I could identify it correctly.
As it happens, cleavers are easy to identify. The most common cleavers I have observed are Galium aparine and Galium triflorum, both native to Virginia. They are very difficult to tell apart, but both exhibit four-sided stems, leaves that grow in whorled clusters of five to ten, and small white or greenish flowers. Both prefer moist forest habitats. Cleavers also have very small hooked bristles that cause the plants to cling to anything that touches it.
Cleavers has immense historical medicinal value, and has been used internally and topically to stimulate the lymphatic system, "de-tox" the body, and “cleanse” the blood (see http://naeb.brit.org). It has even been used to treat cancer and tumors, particularly before more modern treatments became available. Here is a botanical drawing of Galium aparine dated 1885 (from http://www.biologie.uni-hamburg.de/b-online/thome/band4/tafel_091_small.jpg.
I had heard that drinking fresh cleavers juice is like drinking spring, so that was my goal. Cleavers can also be taken as an infusion with fresh or dried leaves and stems. I ventured into my woods one day in mid-May in search of cleavers. I had no problem finding lots of cleavers, where they stood up above the emerging flora, and sprawled along the forest floor, attaching themselves to the unfurling ferns and forbs.
Jack and Max wanted desperately to help me harvest the cleavers, but no. Cleavers stick to you, your clothes, and dogs like magnets. It even has another common name: Stickywilly. I had no interest in untangling the boys from a mass of cleavers. So they watched from behind the deck railing while I cut the cleavers and stuffed the bag. As I stuffed the bag, I saw why another common name for cleavers is bedstraw. Cleavers was used to stuff mattresses long ago. They fill a bag nicely, and, when packed in, a cushiony one at that! Here are Jack and Max, trying to resist diving into the results.
My harvested cleavers totally filled my sink where they became a tangled, clingy, mess! I washed them, and prepared them for juicing.
I am fortunate to own an Oster extraction juicer. I bought it long ago specifically to extract wheatgrass juice and it is wonderful for extracting green juice from greens, as well as any fruit or vegetable that I grow or buy. The now-washed cleavers resulted in about four cups of intense, deeply green, cleavers juice. Ah, the smell and taste of spring!!
What to do with all of this fresh cleavers juice? It's so intense that it's best to take in small doses! I poured the juice into an ice cube tray and froze it. Doing that in two batches, I ended up with about 32 cleavers juice ice cubes.
Frozen cleavers juice ice cubes is definitely the way to go if you are into green smoothies like me. I typically prepare a protein powder green smoothie after my daily workout, usually with greens and/or spirulina. But there is literally nothing like a green smoothie made with fresh frozen cleavers juice. The recipe is simple:
Cleavers Juice Green Smoothie Recipe
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 scoop of vanilla protein powder (your favorite brand)
1 cleavers juice ice cube
Use a blender to puree the ingredients. The intensity of the cleavers juice is diluted by the other ingredients and it becomes a milder version of itself. As you drink it, you will truly experience the goodness of spring. I will be using my cleavers juice ice cubes for my daily smoothie until they run out. Then I will have to wait until next spring to enjoy it again.
Enjoy cleavers and drink in the goodness of spring!