Ground ivy is such a beautiful and useful herb, often overlooked. Even with its gorgeous flowers, this plant produces mixed feelings from gardeners, for sometimes taking over where it's not wanted.
But hopefully after reading this, it can be allowed to roam in your permaculture plot, where it will yield more than just its food and medicine.
Although only a small wee thing, it makes a big impression on the eye when in flower. If you are currently seeing areas of land adorned with splashes of blue, and only a few inches high in the grass, then it is likely to be ground ivy.
By learning the key identifying characteristics of this plant, you will also find yourself identifying unknown mint family relatives when you meet them in the wild, or out in zones 00-5.
Glechoma hederaceae is a perennial plant, and another useful member of the large and mostly aromatic mint family. Its simple, kidney-shaped, deep green leaves are typically scalloped and slightly undulating at the margins, with essential oil glands on the undersides. They are borne on long petioles
The upper leaf surface has a covering of very small bristly hairs. The leaves can often be a slight purple hue, depending on soil, site, and time of year. Ground ivy can be found in all but the harshest winters.
As with all mint family plants, the stems are square, and have opposite pairs of simple leaves. Ground ivy's stems are also covered in fine bristly hairs.
The main flowering season is late March or April until May. As with all its relatives, these distinctive flowers are two-lipped. Usually you will see two or three appearing from the leaf axil. The corolla tubes are quite long (approx 10-12mm).The flowers are great wildlife attractants.
Superficially, at a glance, this plant could be mistaken for purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and henbit dead nettle (Lamium amplexicaule). Both those plants are related and are edible.
Only when in flower will ground ivy be found erect. I don't often see ground ivy above 8-10 inches high. This is because it grows on 'runners' (horizontally growing stems, just above the soil surface that can produce roots and shoots from every node). This adaptation makes ground ivy an exceptional coloniser of bare soil and darker, shady areas of the garden.
A similar method of growth is employed by mints (Mentha) but their stems are found just under the soil surface, carrying the same capacity to root and shoot at every node.
Ground ivy loves a well-drained soil. It is happy growing in sun or shade and does very well on sandy soils where its creeping stems can penetrate and colonise land quickly, hence gaining the epithet invasive in many garden texts.
As with much in gardening or foraging, terms and values are interchangeable, debatable and always site specific. One person’s invasive plant is another’s quick and effective ground cover!
It will often be seen growing in similar sites to common ivy, and amongst or near to nettles. Try also looking for it at field edges and in other grassy areas. You may also find it on northern sides of hedges and hedge-banks in the summer months, as well as in woodlands, especially glades and woodland edges.
Parts used - Leaves and flowering tops.
Harvest - Just before flowering is best, though leaves and flowers can be taken for medicinal or culinary use at any time.
Key constituents - Amino-acids, flavonol glycosides (including rutin, isoquercitrin). Flavone glycosides (inc luteolin), ?-Sitosterol, saponin, tannin, wax, volatile oil (inc linalool, limonene, menthone, terpineol, alpha-pinene, ?-pinene, pulegone, rosmarinic acid.
Actions - mild expectorant, anti-catarrhal, vulnerary, diuretic, astringent.
Traditional uses - Many herbal authors of old, such as Gerard, noted its use and action on the mucus membranes, thus employing the plant as an expectorant and a cure for colds. Ground ivy's aromatics really remind me of sage or thyme and mint. I love the scent, but they're not everyone's cup of tea.
Its chemistry has been quite extensively documented. The astringent activity is reportedly due to rosmarinic acid, whilst terpineol is known to be antiseptic. Astringency and anti-inflammatory actions of ground ivy are usually associated with the tannins and flavonoid fractions.
Pulegone is the abortifacient agent responsible for the actions of Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) where it is found at concentrations of 1-2%. However, it is not present in this plant in high enough concentrations (0.03-0.06%) to be considered harmful.
The terpene-rich volatile oil of this plant indicates it will be an irritant to the mucous membranes of the stomach as well as other parts of the gastro-intestinal tract and kidneys. Irritation is not necessarily harmful because the C.N.S is kick-started into producing responses we desire from it.
Without question this plant is the best antidote I know of for nettle stings. Simply crush the leaves and rub juice on the afflicted area. I have a hunch it is the thicker essential oil components that are partly responsible for soothing the reaction to urtication.
As a food, ground ivy also makes a welcome addition to many a pie, soup or broth. Stuffing mixes are also enhanced with ground ivy. Flowers can be added to salads.
This plant would have been a much welcome green leaf to our ancestors, especially in the late-winter-to-early spring period, when fresh new leaves are scarce. Its leaves cook down like spinach and the volatile oil within them lends a mild sage/mint-like flavour to dishes.
For the home brewer this plant is well worth foraging for during spring. It lends an aromatic bitterness and also has renowned abilities to clarify ale, for which it was once popularly used.
Discover more about our edible wild plants; order my colour coded harvest charts and calendars, and book on my all year round foraging walks, by visiting my new website www.wildplantguide.co.uk
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