Cleavers: A Jewel in the Weeds


Cleavers: A Jewel in the Weeds
  • Posted November 10, 2014

Have you ever discovered a small vine-like plant when weeding a shaded garden bed that sticks to your clothes and won't let go? If so, it was probably cleavers. The tender green vines would have had whorls of slender oblong leaves with a fine stem threading the middle of each one, just like its close relative, the widely adored woodland herb, sweet woodruff. The tidiness of a clump of sweet woodruff makes it clear why it became an ornamental specimen, while cleavers, which behaves like a punk hairdo in comparison, is considered a weed.

Historically, however, cleavers was arguably the more popular cousin. It is an alternative to animal-based rennet and much more convenient for curdling milk into cheese than obtaining the innards of a calf. Cleaver's alternative name of bedstraw comes from its traditional use as a mattress stuffing — apparently the tiny hairs that cause the stems to stick together make it a very comfortable plant to sleep on. Like sweet woodruff, the crushed stems of cleavers give off an exquisite smell, like vanilla combined with freshly cut hay. If that wasn't enough, cleavers has another trait shared with a more distant cousin whose identity you would never guess: like coffee beans, cleaver seeds contain caffeine.

Cleavers are a gentle weed. They hardly have a root system, so they're easy as can be to pull; and the stems stick to themselves just as well as they do to your clothes, meaning they often come out in a single mass. Since it lacks any hint of noxiousness, perhaps you will take a closer look next time you encounter a patch and leave a bit to savor its gentle character and delicate aroma.

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Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.


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Cleavers: A Jewel in the Weeds