Cleavers, native to Asia, Europe, and North America, is a common garden herb that hides many surprising medicinal applications. 

By HerbaZest Editorial Team | Updated: Jun 18, 2020

General Information
  • Common name(s) Cleavers, sticky weed, Robin-run-the-hedge, sticky willy
  • Scientific name Galium aparine
  • Geographic distribution Asia, Europe, North Africa, Southern Africa, and North America
  • Plant type Herb
  • Native region North America, Asia, Europe
  • Main Economic Use Medicinal, Herbalism

Cleavers is popular in various parts of the world, especially in North Africa, Southern Africa, and Asia. The plant often grows near chickweed, and the two are often combined in therapeutic remedies. The history of cleavers stretches as far back as the Ancient Greeks, who consumed it to counter weariness, whereas country folks have used its creeping, straggling stems to make baskets or sieves.

Cleavers Medicinal Properties

Quick Facts
  • Medicinal action Anti-inflammatory, Antimicrobial
  • Key constituents iridoid glycosides, tannins, lipophilic compounds, anthraquinones
  • Ways to use Capsules, Cold infusions, Hot infusions/tisanes, Food, Juiced, Tincture, Ointment
  • Medicinal rating (2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety ranking Use with caution

Health Benefits of Cleavers

Cleavers boast several medicinal benefits, being the most remarkable ones its antibacterial and astringent actions, mainly used for:

  • Treating infections. Cleavers has shown strong antimicrobial properties, and it is popularly used in the treatment of sepsis, as well as for respiratory illnesses and urinary tract infections (UTIs).

  • Healing wounds and psoriasis lesions. Cleavers has been traditionally used to treat a variety of skin ailments, light wounds and burns.

Traditionally, cleavers has been sought for its diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties, and used in folk medicine for a variety of purposes, such as relieving tonsillitis, treating scurvy, reducing fever, and lowering high blood pressure.

How It Works

As most of the uses of cleavers are based on traditional practices rather than pharmacological studies of standardized Galium extracts, its mechanism of action is not fully understood. However, sesquiterpenoids, aromatic compounds, fatty acids, chlorophylls and carotenoids, among others, have been identified in cleavers.

The two most significant substances behind its health properties are iridoid glycosides and tannins. Whereas the former are related to the anti-inflammatory qualities of the plant, the latter are responsible for its astringent and antimicrobial benefits.

In addition, the lipophilic compounds in cleavers have also shown powerful antibacterial and antifungal properties, while its roots contain various anthraquinones with laxative and diuretic effects.

Honeysuckle and uva ursi are also herbs with strong antimicrobial properties, and similar anti-inflammatory benefits can be found in herbs like marsh mallow and jojoba.

Cleavers Side Effects

Cleaver is likely safe for most people. There are no reported side effects, although the cooling action of this herb, when consumed by mouth, can reduce body temperature and cause chilling.


  • Diabetic patients taking prescribed medication should be cautious when using cleavers, since its  diuretic properties can further lower sugar levels.

  • Cleavers should be handle carefully because of its hairy leaves, which can produce skin irritation or contact dermatitis.

How to Consume Cleavers

The most effective way to consume cleavers is in the form of remedies, which concentrate all the beneficial properties of this herb. Cleavers can be applied both topically and internally. The alimentary uses of cleavers are mainly centered on salads and juices.

Natural Foods

  • Raw. A way to take advantage of cleavers' diuretic properties is to add its fresh leaves to salads and juices. For these purposes, the plant must be harvested during mid-winter or at the latest of it, because afterwards the leaves will turn tough and hairy.

  • Infusion. Two to four grams of dry can be mixed with a cup of boiling water to brew a warm herbal beverage. This simple remedy can help treat respiratory illnesses and urinary tract infections (UTIs.)

  • Cold maceration. 25 grams of cleavers crushed leaves can be covered by two cups of water and let sit overnight. In this form, cleavers can be taken orally to reduce fever.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

  • Tincture. Macerating cleavers' leaves into an alcoholic solution concentrates the anti-inflammatory and antibacterial actions of the plant. Diluted in a glass of water, this herbal remedy is recommended for intestinal catarrh, as well as for irritations of mucous membranes.

  • Creams. This water based preparation is easily absorbed and meant for external use only. Cleaver creams are commonly used to help healing wounds and treating skin conditions.

  • Capsules. They provide high concentrations of its active components in fixed doses and are easy to find, being a good option to reap all the benefits of this plant.


Quick Facts
  • Where to buy Big online retailers, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores, Local herbal store, Online health stores

Natural Forms

Due to the ubiquity of cleavers as a weed, fresh cleavers can be found growing in the wild, but the plant is not easy to found for sale. However, dried cleavers leaves and seeds can be purchased online

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Cleavers tinctures are easily found in herbal stores, and can normally be found in many online and specialized health stores.

Cleavers supplements can normally be found in the form of capsules. These are most commonly available from wholesale retailers or anywhere that herbal supplements are sold. Online outlets also carry a wide selection of brands and concentrations to suit individual needs.


Quick Facts
  • Life cycle Annual
  • Harvested parts Leaves
  • Light requirements Full sun, Open shade, Full shade
  • Soil Light (sandy), Medium (loam), Loamy sand
  • Soil pH 5.1 – 5.5 (Strongly acidic), 5.6 – 6.0 (Moderately acidic), 6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral), 7.4 – 7.8 (Slightly alkaline)
  • Growing habitat Temperate climates
  • Pre-germination seed treatment None
  • Planting time Right after last frost
  • Growing time 8 weeks

This weedy species is an annual that can be grown in temperate regions, in parts of the garden managed for wildlife, as either a summer or winter annual (or occasionally as a biennial). The seed is thought to be viable for around 2 - 6 years unless frozen.

The creeping, climbing cleavers herb is commonly found in grassy areas and spreads rapidly. It can be an invasive plant and out-compete indigenous species. When cultivating it, care should be taken to prevent its spread into farmland or sensitive areas of conservation importance.

Growing Guidelines

  • Cleaver is reproduced by seeds.

  • It prefers moist soil, preferably a rich loam, with above-average fertility and pH of 5.5-8.0.

  • Seeds must be buried to germinate, ideally at a depth of 0.1 - 0.3 inches (2 - 10 mm).

  • Flowers appearing as soon as eight weeks after germination.

  • Ripe seeds develop from summer through autumn, depending on the region.

  • Supports such as pea sticks can be provided, as this plant likes to climb.

  • Plants will die down after their hairy fruits are released. At that point seeds must be collected to be sown for the next year.

Additional Information

Quick Facts
  • Other uses Basketry

Plant Biology

Cleavers is a prolific, climbing annual plant, commonly regarded as a weed. Many gardeners try to remove it rather than encourage the plant's growth in their gardens. It can also be found growing wild on roadsides, as well as in moist and grassy areas.

The stem of this plant can reach up to six feet (1.8 m) long and it bears leaves that grow in whorls. The name "sticky willy" refers to the fact that the hooked prickles on the leaves and fruits give the plant a "velcro-like" property. Cleavers plants send up bright green shoots from January onwards and produce white, four-petalled flowers in summer.

  • Classification

    A member of Rubiaceae, or the madder family, Galium aparine is one of around 580 known taxa belonging to this group, notably including coffee (Coffea arabica) and cat's claw (Uncaria tomentosa).

    There are two closely related species of cleavers classified in the Galium genus, which share the same medicinal potential: G. odoratum (sweet woodruff) and G. verum (lady's bedstraw). They are very similar in appearance, except for the color of the flowers, which are yellow in lady's bedstraw.
  • Varieties and Subspecies of Cleaver

    There are three main subspecies of Galium aparine: G. aparine subsp. aparine, subsp. spurium, and subsp. tenerum. In addition, controversy remains regarding G. aparine var. agreste, as some contemporary botanists believe it should be classified as its own subspecies rather than as a variety.

Economic Data

Owing to the fact it is generally considered a weed, no cleavers market has been established. There is some economic worth in cleavers' supplements that can be purchased, but this affects only a small part of the herbal medicine industry, enough to have not produced any reliable economic figures.

Other Uses of Cleaver

In centuries past, people have made used of cleavers' straggly stems to make baskets. They were also used during the Ancient Greek age to make sieves.