Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is one of those plants that has a whole slew of names depending on where you are from and how back you look. Some other names are alehoof, gill-go-over-the-ground, haymaids, tun-hoof, hedgemaids, catsfoot, creeping Charlie, field balm, runaway robin….the list goes on. When I first discovered this plant growing at the edge of our woods with my daughter, we actually dubbed it soap-mint plant; the square stem and flowers telling me it was a mint and the flowers seemed to have a slight floral soap scent to them when crushed.
The plethora of names comes from the variety of cultures who have used it all over the world for a huge variety of things, from cooking to medicine, to even brewing beer before the introduction of hops!
Ground ivy is considered an invasive weed in the US, and apparently yet another weed the lawn-lovers despise, although I’ve never seen it growing anywhere near a lawn in my area. Here it seems to prefer the damp understory of the woods, especially near the edges of paths where it spreads and mounds to cover the ground with this beautiful green and purple, thick mat.
Like other mints, ground ivy spreads rapidly by seed and by rhizome. It also sends out runners, which root along the way at each node.
I suppose this is the frustration with removal, as one would not only have to pull up the entire mass of plant before seeds were set, but ensure all the runners and bits of root were removed to stop regrowth.
Ground ivy is a low growing, spreading perennial. The stems are square, and as I said above, they grow along the ground, rooting at nodes. The leaves are about the size of a cat’s foot (hence the catsfoot name), are scalloped and fan shaped, and are opposite each other on the stems. The flowers are purple-y with white spots on the bottom ‘lip,’ and are usually in clusters of two or three. It is generally evergreen, dying back only in very cold, icy, or snowy weather, and it flowers from mid spring through fall.
The most dominant characteristics which separate it from the few look-alikes are:
- square stems
- creeping stems which root at the nodes
My absolute favorite way to use ground ivy is cooking! I collect as much as I can around this time of year, dry it, and use it in everything as I would any other dry herb. As a matter of fact, I find the taste of the dry plant to be a subtle mix of rosemary and sage, so it works perfectly for this time of year when my slow growing sage plants aren’t quite up for picking yet. And I have to say, it compliments wild game and fire-cooked meats quite nicely.
The fresh leaves, especially the older ones, are a bit on the bitter side, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I probably wouldn’t eat a whole dish of just ground ivy. Also, the volatile oils are contained in glands on the underside of the leaves, so it tastes similar to how it smells.
Interestingly, ground ivy, or at the very least ground ivy galls seem to be an effective insect repellant, although I can’t find any information on it. My sweetheart was out fishing one evening last summer in marshy area full of mosquitos and biting flies. He told me they were especially bad that day, and rather than running for cover (what I would have done), he looked around for familiar plants that might help. Ground ivy was there. He said he picked up a handful and started crushing it and rubbing the juices up and down his arms and neck. He also noticed what he thought were seed pods all over the ground ivy, so he crushed those and, since they were even “juicier,” used them on his skin as well. The biting insects stayed around, but he said it was as if he had an invisible barrier between him and them, allowing him to fish at peace for the rest of the evening. He did reapply every 30 minutes or so, just to be sure.
When he brought home one of the “seed pods” to show me, we discovered it was actually a plant gall.
Gall, an abnormal, localized outgrowth or swelling of plant tissue caused by infection from bacteria, fungi, viruses, and nematodes or irritation by insects and mites.
Gall wasps, or gallflies, are really tiny wasps. The female lays her egg in a plant, on leaves, stems, branches, etc., and the larvae actually develops in and feeds on the plant material, and as it does, a swelling or ball appears on the plant, which is the gall. Sometimes they’re smooth, sometimes they’re hairy or fuzzy. They can be very hard or brittle, and the size, I imagine, depends on the size of the larvae. I have actually seen tiny ones on leaves that look like pimples, and fairly big ones on trees which look like some misplaced seedpod or fruit.
Medicinally, ground ivy has been used historically all over the world for a variety of things. I haven’t used it medicinally for anything as of yet, but I plan to try it out just to see, and will surely post my results later. Ground ivy is mildly astringent, drying, and warming. Historical uses include drying up excess mucus in the respiratory system, externally applied to black eyes and bruises, kidney and liver support, stubborn coughs, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) caused by loud noise, and even lead poisoning. It has actually been used in parts of the country as a bioremediation attempt to remove lead in the soil from contaminated public areas.
As part of the mint family, it is pretty much applicable for any of the mint family things as well. And since my daughter is not a fan of mint itself, but does like the taste of ground ivy, maybe I’ll try some next time I would normally reach for mint in a remedy.