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Ground Ivy

By Roger Klinger

Last month we participated in the annual Gardens of Fairview Tour, which was a grand success. During the tour, three different people picked a sprig of a plant found everywhere in the lower gardens and asked me, “What is this plant, and how can I get rid of it?” I had them crush the leaf and smell the strong, spicy almost oregano-like aroma and explained that the tiny little plant they had in their hands is called Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea, a tough, tenacious member of the mint family that spreads like a carpet along the ground and, because it roots at the nodes, survives mowing and always comes back. The genus Glechoma is derived from the Greek word glechon, which describes a type of mint. The species hederacea means “resembling ivy” and is derived from Hedera, the Latin name for ivy.

Ground Ivy is not native to North America; it was brought here by the colonists due to its medicinal and culinary uses, and then the plant just took off into the landscapes of the New World.

Many Common Names

Ground Ivy has many common names including Run-Away Robin, Gill over the Ground and Cat’s Foot, but my favorite is Lizzie Runs Around the Hedges, because that’s exactly what the plants do around our berry gardens — they form a mass running completely around the borders. I use a hoe to keep them at bay in the shrubs and either mow or burn the edges for control. One other interesting historical common name is Alehoof, which literally translates to mean “ale herb”; prior to the introduction of hops, Ground Ivy was used by English countrywomen who commonly added it to their ale or beer to clarify it and add a bitter flavor.

This custom seems to have died out following the introduction of hops to England in the 17th century, but considering the recent craze in specialized craft breweries around Asheville, it might be a ripe time for reintroducing this particular old ritual from Europe.

Ground Ivy exists throughout North America in all regions except for desert areas, and as a member of the mint family it has square stems and opposite leaves. Many people confuse Ground Ivy with its cousins purple dead nettle and henbit; the latter two also have somewhat scalloped leaves, but are more upright in stature and are clump-forming, and henbit has more heart-shaped leaves, whereas Ground Ivy stays much lower to the ground and will spread like a carpet.

Ground Ivy leaves are typically 3/4-one inch across but may reach two inches on plants grown in fertile soil; the stems themselves can reach 15 feet! Ground Ivy’s tiny flowers are also more of a blue hue compared to the purple, lavender colors of henbit and dead nettle, and the aroma is much spicier and more aromatic than either of its mint cousins.

Becoming Friends

One other plant that causes confusion and misidentification, especially before it flowers, is the common Veronica or Persian Speedwell, which also grows like a carpet and has tiny blue flowers, but it does not have creeping stems that root at the nodes. Speedwell stems are round and the plant is poisonous. Once you become friends with these plants and truly get to know them, it becomes easy to distinguish them all from one another.

Ground Ivy can tolerate sun but truly thrives in moist, shady areas and loves disturbed soils like those found in garden beds. The plant is edible and in the early spring it can be used as a cooked vegetable like spinach or added to other greens. Even in midsummer, I have thrown a few sprigs into my wild mushroom sautés when taking people on my wild edible walks, as I like the spicy pungent herb flavors. Ground Ivy can also be used as a tea or added to soups.

Ground Ivy is very high in iron and rich in Vitamin C. Both ancient and modern herbalists have used Ground Ivy to treat kidney disorders, coughs, and ringing of the ear disorders. I have also encountered a few reports that cited using either the dried leaf or juice as a snuff medicine to relieve sinus headaches. Further, a 1986 laboratory experiment showed that ursolic and oleanolic acids from the herb inhibited the Epstein-Barr virus and protected mouse skin from induced tumor growth. Ground Ivy has also been shown to have antioxidant properties. The universe of wild plants holds many mysteries and vast untapped potential in the fields of medicine and healing.

Garlands for All

In the Middle Ages, ritual use of ground ivy was popular and the plant was often woven into crowns and garlands to be worn on Midsummer’s Eve. Since the runners of these plants are so long and the small flowers are pretty, it’s a natural choice for a garland for children and like-minded adults as well!

So lie down on the ground and get to know this common little mint; if you take a hand lens or magnifying glass and look closely at the small flowers, they are remarkably beautiful, and when enlarged resemble a gorgeous orchid. Take a nibble of the young leaves or try adding a dash of them to your summer tea.

Contact Roger at rogerklinger@charter.net.