Why I’m just wild about ‘sticky willies’ and their many ben­e­fits

Fiann Ó Nual­láin gets to grips with the fas­ci­nat­ing back­story of the Cleaver ‘sticky back’ weed

Irish Examiner - Property & Interiors - - In The Garden -

Iam hav­ing a bumper har­vest of cleavers this year. Okay, I know the ma­jor­ity of gar­den­ers view it as a weed and so ‘har­vest’ sounds plain wrong — but I don’t think of it as a weed. It’s not quite a crop but it is use­ful to how I gar­den — which is to be chem­i­cal-free and to reap the ben­e­fits of every plant that finds its way in. Cleavers (Gal­ium aparine) is one of the weeds I wel­come, for its hor­ti­cul­tural and medic­i­nal ben­e­fits and its story too.

Plants, even the ones we of­ten dis­miss as weeds, have fas­ci­nat­ing back­sto­ries. Cleavers get their com­mon name for their rep­u­ta­tion to cleave to — as their hairy stem and fuzzy seed struc­ture does ad­here eas­ily to passers-by — so their stems and seed may stick to your clothes or the fur of your pet and make their way back from a walk, right into your gar­den. What a cool way to dis­perse the next gen­er­a­tion — hitch­hike. A sneaky trait, but you’ve got to ad­mire ef­fi­ciency and tenac­ity.

The botan­i­cal name also re­minds us of its grip­ping na­ture as in the Greek de­rived aparine mean­ing to “lay hold of” or “seize”. Tra­di­tion­ally cleavers were em­ployed for a grip of a dif­fer­ent na­ture — wo­ven in to sieves to strain im­pu­ri­ties from milk. As kids, my friends and I took ad­van­tage of those Vel­cro­like hairs and played a ‘throw and tag’ child­hood game with the stems as we of­ten did with the darts of flow­er­ing grasses.

The cleaver game was called ‘sticky willies’ — I know, sounds a bit trou­bling now, but the name was around be­fore we found the game.

I am a bit of a fan of wild bev­er­ages and for­age-knowl­edge, so I ap­pre­ci­ate that Gal­ium is a rel­a­tive of cof­fee and along­side chicory (Ci­cho­rium in­ty­bus), makes one of the more su­pe­rior cof­fee sub­sti­tutes – the roasted seed rather than the roots are my pref­er­ence. Gal­ium has a Greek etymology link­ing to ‘milk’ and the se­lec­tion of that name for its nomen­cla­ture in­di­cates its con­nec­tion with the dairy in­dus­try — not just as a sieve tool but also for centuries it has been em­ployed as a cur­dling agent in yo­ghurt and cheese pro­duc­tion.

The plant is grazed by fowl and farm­yard an­i­mals – hence the col­lo­quial name of gooseg­rass. The seeds and green leaves can pro­vide a sta­ple chicken fod­der and as fod­der crop for other poul­try, cat­tle, sheep and horses. While as a hu­man food stuff, soups and juices are known, but are more re­me­dial than culi­nary (a touch too bit­ter for most palates). So if your sus­tain­abil­ity has you keep­ing poul­try, then this weed is bet­ter in their feed than in the com­post bin.

By way of a note on hu­man con­sump­tion: be­cause of the high tan­nin con­tent, cleavers in any con­sum­able form, make a pow­er­ful as­trin­gent and amongst its ac­tive com­po­nents, it con­tains coumarins which thin the blood and as­pe­ru­lo­side which can be con­verted into prostaglandins that stim­u­late the uterus and af­fect blood ves­sels.

All those traits can be utilised re­me­di­ally, but as a culi­nary ad­di­tion or for ex­tended med­i­cal us­age, it is gen­er­ally ad­vised to use for only two weeks at a time, and pause for one or two weeks be­fore us­ing again.

Iam a fan of cleaver-in­fused wa­ter as a re­fresh­ing but also a ‘health’ drink. I har­vest the aerial parts be­fore flow­er­ing. Rinse un­der wa­ter and gen­tly pat dry with a paper towel. Then I slice a few stalks and add to a glass of wa­ter. Place in fridge and leave overnight to in­fuse. Strain and drink. The cold in­fu­sion acts as a lym­phatic tonic and flavours the wa­ter quite nicely too.

The plant is burst­ing with medic­i­nal prop­er­ties: an­ti­spas­modic; an­tiphlo­gis­tic; ape­ri­ent; as­trin­gent; detox­i­f­i­cant; di­aphoretic; di­uretic; depu­ra­tive; vul­ner­ary; a noted lym­phatic and uri­nary tract cleanser; re­fig­er­ant; febrifuge; lax­a­tive; low­ers blood pres­sure; slim­ing and tonic. The juice has stronger di­uretic and lax­a­tive prop­er­ties than in­fu­sions. It was once a com­mon fea­ture of cures for obe­sity and dropsy.

It is of­ten noted that sap may cause con­tact der­mati­tis with sen­si­tive skin but the plant also has a his­tory of use as a cos­metic aid: A crushed leaf com­press or a but­ter and juice salve has a re­me­dial ac­tion on skin con­di­tions and wounds. Cleavers are high in sil­ica which is ben­e­fi­cial to hair, teeth and nails. The plant has been used as a cleans­ing lo­tion for acne and other con­di­tions of the skin and as a cooled in­fu­sion to rinse dan­druff prone scalps.

Com­presses and poul­tices have been used to draw im­pu­ri­ties from the skin. The guide recipe for lo­tion is a hand­ful of pounded herb to be in­fused in a pint of milk. Crushed leaves neu­tralise acidic per­spi­ra­tion and helps soothe armpits. The in­fu­sion as a wash and detox-tea is ben­e­fi­cial to pso­ri­a­sis, ery­thema and erysipelas. A de­coc­tion of the stems is said to ad­dress the red­ness and dis­tress of sun­burn.

The hor­ti­cul­tural ben­e­fit of hav­ing this weed in your gar­den is that it in­di­cates fer­tile soil. Fur­ther­more it is a dy­namic ac­cu­mu­la­tor of sodium, sil­ica and cal­cium — so great to make a liq­uid feed or soil drench. I am not say­ing cul­ti­vate it, but use it if you have it. If you can’t bear the thought of in­clud­ing a weed in your food, medicine or hor­ti­cul­tural prac­tices that’s ok too.

As a weed it does out­com­pete other crops for nu­tri­ents, wa­ter and sun­light and one of its draw­backs is that it hosts ne­ma­todes, in­sect pests and plant diseases, not least Ver­ti­cil­lium; a fun­gal pathogen that causes vas­cu­lar wilt of bras­sica. It is re­sis­tant to a num­ber of her­bi­cides but hot wa­ter/steam and flame work. The best method is man­ual ex­trac­tion be­fore seeds form.

Cleavers, Gal­lium aparine, which hitch­hike into gardens by stick­ing onto hu­mans and an­i­mals, thanks to their Vel­cro-like hairs. They have many hor­ti­cul­tural ben­e­fits and can be use in a drink for health.

Pictures Dan Line­han

Cleavers or Sticky-backs are a sure sign of fer­tile ground in the gar­den.

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