I grew up with orange trees and cactus in my front yard, and date palm orchards growing nearby. Even though I’ve lived in Wisconsin almost 19 years, the idea of a yard full of grass is still very foreign to me.
To me, turf grass is a water-hogging luxury, and is for golf courses. Grass does not make sense. I can honestly say that in over fifty years, I have never mown or knowingly planted the stuff.
As a Master Gardener, turf care and turf management are an intense part of the training. You can imagine what kind of terror I was, during the turf portion of the Master Gardener classes.
Alternative ground covers and native plantings adorn those parts of my yard not covered by raised beds and trees. Creeping Charlie is one of those ground covers. Now, before you get out your Round Up and come over, read on. The plant is known both as a wonderful house plant and a “loathed” lawn weed. The house plant differs from the ground ivy. However, both species are related to each other.
Creeping charlie (Glechoma hederacea) is a low-growing, creeping ground cover. Glechoma is a genus that consists of 12 species. Hederacea is an evergreen perennial. In our area, it dies back in the late fall and winter. It is a member of the mint family and is aromatic and hardy. About the only place it doesn’t grow well is the Rocky Mountains.
The soft, hairy, leaves are cat-paw shaped, and sometimes the plant is known as Catsfoot. Botanically speaking, the opposing leaves are reniform and crenate. That means they are fan-shaped with round, toothy edges.
The plant color ranges from dark plush green, to a bright spring green. The lavender to dark purple flowers are funnel-shaped and are bilateral. The flowers bloom through the spring and early summer. Many of the mallow plants (especially Malva neglecta) resemble Creeping Charlie.
Speedwells are also misidentified as well. However, the stems of Creeping Charlie are square and root at the nodes. Besides seed, the plant also propagates stoloniferously, using underground rhizomes.
The history of this controversial plant is interesting. It was intentionally brought to this country as a medicinal herb by many different European settlers. It has been a basic staple of the world’s medicine cabinet for millennia. Note that. Not centuries… Millennia. It has been grown with a purpose for over 5,000 years. If it’s been grown and used for that long, it is not a weed.
Throughout history, it has been known by many names. Grieve (in A Modern Herbal volume II) describes the plant as Alehoof, Gill-go-over-the-Ground, Haymaids, Tun-hoof, Hedgemaids, Lizzy-run-up-the-Hedge, Gill-go-by-the-Hedge, Catsfoot, Robin-run-in-the-Hedge, or Ground Ivy (which is what it’s listed as in Grieve’s book). The word Gill is from the French “guiller” which means to ferment beer. In England, “gill” also meant “girl,” and thus the hedgemaid term.
Creeping Charlie is usually used as a tonic. It is an antiscorbutic. That means it prevents scurvy. Tea made from the leaves (1 oz. of leaves steeped with a pint of boiling water — cooled, sweetened, and served in a wine glass dose) is extremely high in Vitamin C.
The ground fresh plant is used as a poultice for bruising and black eyes. The plant has also been used as a diuretic, astringent, as a curative for consumption (an early name for TB), and as a gastro-stimulant.
For several thousand years, it was one of the most popular remedies for coughs and nervous headaches. At one time, it was used as a blood purifier. However, other herbs took it’s place in that department.
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It continues as a strong herb for pulmonary, and kidney complaints. The listing of the curative properties of Creeping Charlie is lengthy, indeed!
The fresh herb (i.e. the leaves, flowers and tender stems) may be eaten in salads (as it is a member of the mint family). The leaves have a balsamic, slightly bitter taste, but smell wonderful.
Early Saxons used Creeping Charlie in the making and clarifying of beer, prior to hops being used. Thus, the names Alehoof and Tunhoof. The plant enhanced the drink, improving the flavor. It was in general use in this way, until the reign of King Henry VIII.
The plant likes well-drained soil. It grows best in partially shaded, moist areas. It also grows in well full sun. The resulting carpet produced is thick, and cushy. It fills in under itself, making a thatched layer. In fact, it makes a great ground cover. If planted in pots or hanging pots, Creeping Charlie makes a lovely trailing arrangement.
If you really don’t like this amazing plant, and are determined to get rid of it, there are various things you can try. The plant “lives through” mowing very well. Ground ivy is resistant to a number of herbicides. Many of the products that will kill Charlie, will also kill turf grass.
When using herbicides on Creeping Charlie, timing and placement are paramount. Using a postemergence broadleaf herbicide works best. As with any chemical product, refer to and use the directions on the package.
Natural or organic products (such as Borax) mixed in water and sprayed on the plant, will take it out, but not in all areas. However, research at both the University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University suggest that Borax injures surrounding plants as much or more than the Charlie. All herbicidal and organic applications will need to be repeated.
Mechanical means, such as hand pulling, or mulching work much better. A tool called a dethatching rake is available to help pull. However, any type of rake will do the job.
Gardeners need to remove the pulled plants from the area, so they will not re-root. Landscape fabric seems to work well, when placed properly. Some gardeners insist that neither of these methods work and that the plant is as indestructible as Superman.
I met a couple of gardeners who “absolutely hate” the plant. One man went as far as using the “burn the lawn” method to get rid of it. He insists that the plant came back thicker and greener the next year. That’s not surprising since burning the top doesn’t kill the rhizomes.
If you can’t get rid of it and you really want to, you might want to take into consideration why Creeping Charlie is growing in your yard and what you want, isn’t. Consider seeding, thickening your lawn, improving your lawn management technique, land use, mulching, and soil amendments. Other than that, enjoy the plant with so rich a heritage.
Master Gardener Sydney J. Tanner nurtures her 10 children as well as plants, in Colfax.