This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Glechoma hederacea, or Ground Ivy. It goes by a weird plethora of alternate names, including Creeping Charlie, Gill-Over-the-Ground, Hedgemaid, Tun-hoof, Runaway Robin, Lizzy-Run-Up-the-Hedge, Catsfoot, and Alehoof. No, not kidding. It’s one of the most tenacious lawn weeds on this continent. It’s the herpes of the plant world – once you’ve got it… you’ve got it. It’s nearly impossible to kill, and most conventional weed removal methods actually help it spread. But here at SARCRAFT, we have a solution: Eat it.
Closely related to Purple Deadnettle and Henbit (the resemblance is strong), Ground Ivy is a member of the mint family. It’s a perennial prostrate herb that grows up to 2.5’ long and about 8” high. It spreads by growing up and falling over, and whenever the stem touches the ground it grows roots. It can quickly create thick mats covering large areas and choking out other plant species. It has round, scalloped leaves on long stalks, and small, 3/4” purple flowers emerging from underneath its leaves. It has no deadly mimics, although it does have a lot of lookalikes. Thankfully, except for Speedwell (rare in GA), they’re all edible. Probably the closest lookalike to ground ivy is Ponyfoot – it has a very similar leaf shape, but a different growth habit and its flowers are white, not purple. Ground ivy’s primary identifiers are its square stem, scallop-edged (not smooth) leaves, and purple flowers. By the way, it’s not related to actual ivy in any way.
Ground Ivy is native to Northern Europe, and is especially common in the British Isles. It’s common all throughout mild temperate areas of Eurasia, and is widely naturalized throughout North America and parts of South America. Unlike many plants which were introduced accidentally, ground ivy was brought here by settlers intentionally. It’s been used as a medicinal herb in Europe for millennia, and settlers brought it with them so they could continue to use it. It escaped cultivation and spread quickly, as it does. The first recorded naturalized ground ivy in America was in 1674. Ground ivy is found in a wide variety of habitats. Like most members of its family, it prefers open, sunny areas such as fields, pastures, lawns, abandoned homesteads, roadsides, and open woods. It prefers rich, moist soil, but it’s not picky and can be found in almost any soil type.
Like most other members of the mint family, ground ivy is edible. It has a tiny fraction of the flavonoids of actual mint, but young leaves and flower buds still have a very slight mint flavor and scent. This can also be dependent on the soil the plant is growing in. Young leaves, shoots, and stems are mild and can be eaten raw, but they get bitter quickly with age. Older leaves are better cooked as a pot green with a good bit of flavoring. Like other dark greens, ground ivy is high in manganese, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. It is also one of the highest plant sources of iron anywhere.
Ground Ivy is a strong medicinal plant and has been used by humans in one form or another for over 5,000 years. It is traditionally used in tonics, teas, decoctions, washes, and poultices. It is well-known for the treatment of pulmonary issues ranging from bronchitis to tuberculosis to asthma. The tea made from the leaves is extremely high in vitamin C and was traditionally used to prevent scurvy. It is a diuretic, astringent, and gastrostimulant, meaning that it can help sick patients regain their appetite. It aids kidney and bladder health, and can be used to treat infections of both. Externally, the leaves are used in a poultice to treat sores, cuts, and bruises.
Ground ivy also has one more interesting use. Its name “Alehoof” is Middle English – Ale still means ale, and “hoof” is an outdated word for herb. Before the introduction of hops to England, ground ivy was used as a bittering agent to clarify ale and add a bitter bite to improve the flavor. Until the reign of Henry the Eighth in the 1500s, alehoof was cultivated in large quantities for the brewing industry. So for all you craft beer aficionados out there… if you REALLY want to brew an authentic medieval English ale, get out in your yard and start pickin’. As I mentioned before, it’s one of the most hated lawn weeds of all time by those who care about that kind of thing. It roots extremely easily, so when it’s mowed or weedeated, the cut up pieces can take root in bare ground and form new plants in a matter of days. Due to its trailing nature, herbicides won’t usually kill the whole plant. Since it’s native to meadows, which are fire-prone, it’s very fire resistant as well, so flame weeding doesn’t really work either. The best policy with ground ivy is to make peace with it and try to coexist alongside it. It’s an attractive groundcover with a lot of edible and medicinal value, so why fight it?
Do you have any experience with ground ivy? Do you know anyone who’s brewed ale with it? Did we miss anything? Tell us in the comments!