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Ground ivy, scientifically known as Glechoma hederacea, is a small leafy plant that grows as a ground cover in most of Europe and North America. The shape of its leaves resembles the common ivy plant, which is where it derives its name. Ground ivy is a member of the mint family, however, and is not biologically related to any types of ivy. It has a propensity to invade open spaces and can be very difficult to eradicate from lawns and gardens. Many people consider the plant to be nothing more than a weed, though its connection to mint means it has a great many culinary and medicinal uses, too.
Common pseudonyms for ground ivy include creeping Charlie, run-away-robin, catsfoot, and alehoof. The first two reference the plant’s fast growth. It can usually overtake an open field or patch of land in as little as a week, and can be very difficult to kill because it reproduces with rhizomes underneath the surface of the ground. Mowing or chopping off even the entire head of the plant does not usually kill the underground growth.
The “catsfoot” name references the shape of the ground ivy leaf, which is often compared to the small paw of a cat. Leaves are anchored by square stems, and typically bloom once a year in the spring. Flowers are usually lavender to dark purple in color and tend to occur in clusters of threes. They are tubular, and are shaped something like small trumpets.
Although often a nuisance to landowners, ground ivy is not always malicious. Most agricultural historians believe that European settlers likely used the herb for culinary and medicinal purposes and introduced it to North America as a crop. Only in more recent years has it propagated to the point of being a nuisance.
One of the earliest uses of ground ivy was as a precursor for hops in beer making. Brewers would use pulverized leaves to add bitterness and character to beer as it fermented. Hops were a later introduction that has all but replaced the ivy leaves, though the name “alehoof” still hearkens back to this early purpose.
Ground ivy leaves were and sometimes still are brewed into a tea, as well. Ivy leaf tea is believed by many to carry mild medicinal effects, particularly where congestion and inflammation are concerned. Its leaves can also be eaten raw and can make a unique addition to many salads. The plant has a minty, sometimes peppery flavor, but can be overpowering if used in excess.
Some of the most common places to find ground ivy are in wild, untended lands, wastelands, and abandoned lots. Although the plant is edible, it is not usually recommended that it be foraged from the wild unless its source and surroundings are known. Pesticides and toxins in the ground can contaminate the plant’s leaves, which can lead to sickness and other adverse health consequences if ingested.