Ground Ivy

Ground Ivy flowers beside me peep Upward through the ether blue, Seeing stars which ever keep Hidden close from human view (1).


Ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea L., a prevalent American intruder, was named by Carolus Linnaeus (1741-1778) in Species Plantarum, published in 1753. But in 1843, German botanist George Bentham (1800-1884), in his monumental work on the Labiatae (mint family), Labiatarum Genera et Species, reclassified the species as Nepeta glechoma, placing it in the same genus as catnip, Nepeta catarina L. In 1842, Italian botanist Vittore Benedetto Antonio Trevisan (1818-1897) described the same taxon as Nepeta hederacea in Prospetto della flora Euganea (2). However, his name was soon relegated to synonomy. Today most botanists use Linnaeus' original name for the species, but the alternative name Nepeta hederacea is still in use. Nepeta means the ivy from Nepete and probably was named in honor of the Etruscan city Nepeta (17). 

Ground ivy, of course, is not a true ivy. The genus name is derived from the Greek glechon, meaning mint or thyme (also pennyroyal, a pungent European mint), and emphasizes the plant's family affinity (10). Dioscorides, a 1st century Greek physician, originated the name Glechoma (9). Hederaceae is Latin for "ivy-like" (9) and probably refers to the shape of its leaves and to its creeping habit, which is similar to that of common ivy, Hedera helix L. Hedera is from the Latin and refers to the sacred place of Bacchus, god of wine (12). 

Catnip and ground ivy belong to the large mint family, the lipped-blossomed Labiatae, which includes most aromatic herbs and many essential medicinal ones. Once ground ivy was considered as useful as its relatives (9). The common name ground ivy is an old one, having been around for over five centuries. It took about three centuries for the word ivy to assume its present form. Between 15th and 17th centuries in England, ivy was called "yuy," "inye," and "iuie," respectively. In 1450, the name ground yuy first appeared and it evolved to ground iuye by 1578 and ground iuie by 1616. Sixty years later, Beal used the modern version. Wrote he in 1676: "Ale-hoff, or Ground-Ivy, famous for dispatching the maturation of Ale and Beer" (16).

There is disagreement about the meaning of the common name, gill-over-the-ground. Some lexicographers believe it is a nickname like blackeyed Susan, because Gill or Jill is short for Gillian, an old-fashioned word for sweetheart, as in "Every Jack must have his Jill." This seems logical because ale houses were commonly called gill houses, and explains why ground ivy also came to be known as hedgemaids or haymaids. Other authorities accept the word gill as a variation of the French verb guiller, to ferment, because ground ivy leaves were used in brewing before being replaced by hops. Alehoff, another of ground ivy's more familiar names, is derived from an old English word hofe, a brewing term; it simple means "ale ivy" (5). Other common names include turnhoof, tun hoof, cat's foot, creeping jenney, gill-go-by-the-hedge, and in North America as creeping Charlie (12).


Ground ivy lacks the pronounced minty odor and taste of most mints. The square stem, the lipped flowers, and the faint mint tang indicate that it is indeed a mint, and these traits keep it from being confused with any other round-leafed, creeping, nonmint plant (17). Ground ivy is a hairy, carpet-forming perennial, with prostrate rooting stems and long-stalked kidney shaped leaves, bearing whorls of two-lipped, bluish-purple flowers in small auxiliary clusters from March to June. Occasionally it flowers throughout the year (12). When growing in the shade, all its leaves are green. However, in a sunny place, its stems and foliage will often become red (9). Defoliation of ramets in a clonal species like ground ivy affects the subsequent growth of newly developing parts by preventing translocation of photo assimilates. When Price and Hutchings (15) removed 0%, 50%, or 100% of leaves from ground ivy clones, they observed that defoliation treatments resulted in significantly lower total biomass production than in the control clones. Ground ivy is native to most of Europe, including the British Isles, where it is found in meadows, ditches, hedge banks, and shady places (12). It took off in all directions centuries ago, racing from continent to continent (5). Ground ivy was brought to the U. S. and Canada by early settlers. In Canada, it ranges from Newfoundland to Ontario (2) and south of the border it is among the most familiar garden invaders, from Maine to North Dakota and south to Georgia and Kansas, and as far west as Colorado (9); it is infrequent in the southern states (14). Ground ivy is also common from Russia through China to Japan (12). It is sufficiently hardy to be found occasionally even in the Arctic Circle (9). In A Guide to the Wild Flowers, published in 1899, Alice Lounsberry (13) wrote: "This is the little plant that the English love so dearly and which blooms abundantly in the pasturage every springtime. We have hardly the same fondness for it here and rather resent the calm manner in which it has taken possession of the soil."


The genus Glechoma contains about 10 species and only one-G. hederacea-appears to have been employed in herbal medicine (12). As a medicinal herb, ground ivy had various uses. Prescribed for its astringent, diuretic, and stimulant principles, it "acted on the bladder and kidneys, would cure digestive troubles, ease the griping pains of the wind and choleric humors of the belly and spleen, and openeth the stoppings of the liver and gall." Additionally, ". . . it provoketh abundant urine, relieves fever, gout of the hands, feet and knees, and coughs and colds." Ground ivy was regarded as a singular herb as an excellent wash "for the running scab-sores and ulcers in the privy parts" (8). Herbalist Gerard (8) had much more to say on the subject: "Ground ivy is commended against the humming and noyse and ringing sound of the ears, being put into them, and for them that are hard of hearing." He recommended making a strong decoction of ground ivy leaves in wine with a little honey added to use as a gargle to "ease the sore mouth or throat." He also advocated using ground ivy leaves in a simple poultice to "helpeth green wounds, being brusihed and bound thereto" and which "stays the spreading and eating of cancers, cleanses fistulas and ulcers, the itch, wheals, and similar breakings out in the skin." In the U.S. during the 19th century, ground ivy was dispensed "in diseases of the lungs and kidneys, asthma, jaundice, hypochondria, and monomania" (12). Infusions were regarded as "very beneficial in lead-colic, and painters who make use of it are seldom, if ever, troubled with that affection." Furthermore: "The fresh juice snuffed up the nose often cures the most inveterate headache" (12).

Herbalists still prescribe ground ivy's aromatic bitter tasting leaves for their astringent, diuretic, and tonic effects. Ground ivy tea, an ancient all-purpose drink, is still recommended by herbalists, who sell it in dried form (9). In fact, ground ivy was once hawked in the streets of London for making the curative tea, and those who sold it had their own specialized sales pitch (9). The tea is used to treat coughs, kidney diseases, indigestion, nervous head-ache, and occasionally as a lotion for tired and sore eyes. Ground ivy is sometimes combined with chamomile flow-ers or yarrow and administered as a poultice for abscesses and inflammation of the deeper tissues of a finger or toe (12). The juice of the plant applied externally is good for bruises and black eyes (4). And because it is a potent herb for pulmonary complaints, it was once the medicine of hope for consumptives (9). Seemingly, there are few ailments of man or beast that ground ivy cannot mitigate. And according to Graeco-Roman mythology it even cheers away melancholy (9)! Wrote Spencer (12), "More has been claimed for it by the herbalists than the weed was ever able to do."


Man has been brewing beer and ale from grain for thousands of years. The earliest Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and all other early civilizations made some sort of festive brew. German brewers were the first to discover the value of hops in brewing and were growing hops for that purpose in the 8th century. But until hops was introduced into other countries (this didn't happen in Britain until after the 14th century) only wild herbs were used to flavor brew (9). Until the time of Henry VIII (1), ground ivy was the most widely chosen herb in brew making in England, and among many other names, it became "tunhoof '(tun meaning "to tipple"). For hundreds of years, ground ivy remained the favored flavoring and clearing agent in home brewing (9). Until a century or so ago, brewing was an ordinary household job, and until the 17th century many people considered hops to be dangerous to health (9). Wrote Nicholas Culpeper (3): "It is good to tun up with new drink, for it will clarify it in a night, that it will be fitter to be dranke the next morning; or if any drinke be thick I with removing or any other accident, it will do the like in a few hours."


Ground ivy's trailing stems were once made into wreathes for the dead, and were given to horses as a vermifuge. While grazing animals avoid it because of its bitter taste, bees, on the other hand, readily visit its flowers (12). Several old English recipes recommend adding ground ivy to home-made jams. Also suggested was adding young spring leaves to soups, oatmeal, and vegetable dishes (12). Ground ivy contains a useful amount of iron, making it a favorable addition to the compost heap (9). The Swiss believed that if ground ivy was worn with rue, agrimony, maiden-hair, and broom straw, it conferred keen vision and would indicate the presence of witches (1).


Mints contain a variety of volatile oils which are physiologically active in moderate to large amounts. Assumably, these oils are responsible for ground ivy's toxicity. I several European counties, the weed has been considered poisonous to horses. Toxicity symptoms include salivation sweating, labored breathing, dilation of the pupils, and occasionally signs of pulmonary edema (11). Apparently the plant is toxic if ingested in large amounts either fresh or in hay. Only horses are affected (11).


As Fogg (6) so aptly put it, "The trailing stems of ground ivy put out roots from each node, and once established in lawn or garden the plant is prepared to defend itself to the bitter end. "It is virtually impossible to dig out ground ivy and get rid of all of its slender roots. Over 50 yr ago, Georgia (1) wrote that "The surest method of removing ground ivy from an infested lawn is to skin off the rather shallow layer that contains the roots and probably also a good supply of seeds, and relay with new sod or with clean seed."


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3. Culpeper, N. 1802. Culpeper's Herbal or The Complete English Family Physician, with additions by G. A. Gordon. Hogg and Co., London. 416 p.

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12. LeStrange, R. 1977. A History of Herbal Plants. Angus and Robertson, London. 304 p.

13. Lounsberry, Alice. 1899. A Guide to the Wild Flowers. Frederick A. Stokes Co., New York. 347 p.

14. Muenscher, W. C. 1948. Weeds. The Macmillan Co., New York. 579 p.

15. Price, E.A.C. and M. J. Hutchings. 1992. Studies of growth in the clonal herb Glechoma hederacea. II. The effects of selective defoliation. J. Ecol. 80:39-47.

16. Simpson, J. A. and E.S.C. Weiner. 1989. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

17. Spencer, E. R. 1968. All About Weeds. Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 333 p.