Ground Ivy

  • Scientific Name: Glechoma hederacea
  • Plant Family: Lamiaceae
  • Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and flowers
  • Actions: Expectorant, Astringent, Diuretic, Tonic, a gentle Stimulant, Anti-catarrhal, Vulnerary

General Overview:

Ground Ivy is an aromatic, perennial, evergreen creeper of the mint family. This little plant grows on waste ground and in hedgerows everywhere, the leaves are dark and kidney shaped and the flowers bright dark blue. The Romanies made a tea from Ground Ivy flowers and wood sage as a cure for fevers and colds. The herb is used by herbalists in the treatment of blood and kidney disorders.

The leaves are downy, dark green and kidney-shaped, with glands that contain an aromatic, bitter oil. The tiny deep-throated flowers are purple or blue.

Some people consider Ground Ivy to be an attractive garden plant, and it is grown in pots and occasionally as a groundcover. Easily cultivated, it grows well in shaded places. A variegated variety is commercially available; in many areas this is the dominant form which has escaped cultivation and become established as an aggressive, adventitious groundcover.

Note:

Ground Ivy is sometimes confused with common mallow (Malva neglecta), which also has round, lobed leaves; but mallow leaves are attached to the stem at the back of a rounded leaf, where Ground Ivy has square stems and leaves which are attached in the center of the leaf, more prominent rounded lobes on their edges, attach to the stems in an opposite arrangement, and have a hairy upper surface.

In addition, mallow and other creeping plants sometimes confused with Ground Ivy do not spread from nodes on stems. In addition, Ground Ivy emits a distinctive odor when damaged, being a member of the mint family.

The Basics:

Ground Ivy has been used in the traditional medicine of Europe going back thousands of years: Galen recommends the plant to treat inflammation of the eyes. John Gerard, an English herbalist, recommended it to treat tinnitus, as well as a “diuretic, astringent, tonic and gentle stimulant. Useful in kidney diseases and for indigestion.” It has also been used as a “lung herb.”

Its presence as an invasive weed in North America is the result of the value placed on it by European settlers as a medicinal herb and ale preservative; the species was imported and widely cultivated in herb and kitchen gardens.

Other traditional uses include as an expectorant, astringent, and to treat bronchitis. In the traditional Austrian medicine the herb has been prescribed for internal application as salad or tea for the treatment of a variety of different conditions including disorders associated with the liver and bile, gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, kidneys and urinary tract, fever, and flu.

An ancient ale herb, bitter Ground Ivy was used to clear and flavor ale before the introduction of hops.

Habitat and Cultivation:

Ground Ivy is a shy creeping plant, growing in carpets in the shadowed base of hedges and walls. Native to temperate Europe, Asia and Britain and introduced in the USA, perennial Ground Ivy spreads by long runners and thrives in moist shaded areas, but also tolerates sun very well. It is a common plant in grasslands and wooded areas or wasteland. It also thrives in lawns and around buildings since it survives mowing.

Ground ivy acts as a dense groundcover and keeps the soil from eroding. The lovely blue flowers attract bees, butterflies and on occasion even a hummingbird. It will grow where nothing else will and it stays green nearly all year long.

Pieces of rooting stem planted in the garden will quickly spread. Part of the reason for its wide spread is its rhizomatous method of reproduction. It will form dense mats which can take over areas of lawn and woodland and thus is considered an invasive or aggressive weed in suitable climates where it is not native.

Ground Ivy has an unusual botanical feature; some individual plants possess large and small flowers, the large flowers being hermaphrodite – meaning they possess both the female style and stigma and the male stamens The smaller flowers are female only. This arrangement increases the chances of cross-pollination.

It produces flowers between April and July, which are visited by many types of insects, and can be characterized by a generalized pollination syndrome.Each pollinated flower can produce up to four seeds, which are dispersed by the stem bending over and depositing the ripe seeds in the ground adjacent to the parent plant, although ants may carry the seeds further.

The seeds germinate a few days after contact with moisture, although they can be stored dry.  Dry storage for a period up to a month is thought to improve the germination rate. The plant can also reproduce clonally, with the stems bending down to the earth and allowing roots to attach themselves.

Collection:

The flowering stems should be collected between mid-spring and early summer. Pick and dry  the plant as the flowers begin to open in late spring.

Make sure you pick chemical pesticide-free plants. I bring in baskets of the fragrant plant to dry. Keep in a dark location (under a bed works fine) and allow air to circulate in the basket. I shake or rotate the drying plant daily. You do not want too much plant compacted on itself which makes it damp and likely to spoil/mold.

Shade, a good current of air and some warmth are necessary for successful herb drying. To preserve flavor and essential goodness, the whole drying operation should be done as quickly as possible, the temperature being the critical factor.

Herbs can be spread or suspended in a well-ventilated area near or above a boiler or kitchen range that gives off steady heat. Alternatively, they can be placed on a cooling rack covered with perforated brown paper or on drying trays and placed in a very cool oven with the door left ajar. The oven temperature should never exceed 90° F.

A microwave can also be used. Be sure to use very short intervals (15 seconds) until you have an idea of just how long it will take to dry the leaves.

Medicinal Uses:

Some people take Ground Ivy by mouth for mild lung problems, coughs, and lung inflammation (bronchitis). They also take it by mouth for arthritis and other joint pain, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), stomach problems, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, bladder infections, bladder stones, and kidney stones. Some women take it for menstrual (period) problems. The fresh juice or a medicinal tea is often used to treat digestive disorders, gastritis, and acid indigestion.

Ground ivy contains chemicals that may decrease inflammation. It might also work as an astringent to dry out body fluids such as mucus and to help stop bleeding. Some people apply Ground Ivy directly to the skin for wounds, sunburn, ulcers, and other skin conditions.

The whole plant possesses a balsamic odor and an aromatic, bitter taste, do to its particular volatile oil, contained in the glands on the under surface of the leaves.

From early days, Ground Ivy has been endowed with singular curative virtues, and is one of the most popular remedies for coughs and nervous headaches. It has even been extolled before all other herbal medicines for the cure of consumption.

An excellent cooling beverage, known in the country as Gill Tea, is made from this plant.

Infuse 1 oz of the herb in a pint of boiling water. Sweeten with honey and drink when cool in wine glassful doses, three or four times a day. This used to be a favorite remedy with the poor for coughs of long standing, being much used in consumption.

Gill Tea is a most versatile country remedy; take a small cupful three times a day as an effective spring tonic or use to treat coughs and colds, kidney complaints, to ease menstrual pain or externally as a wash for tired eyes. Ground Ivy was at one time often used for making a tea to purify the blood. It is a wholesome drink and is still considered serviceable in pectoral complaints and in cases of weakness of the digestive organs, being stimulating and tonic.

As a medicine useful in pulmonary complaints, where a tonic for the kidneys is required, it would appear to possess peculiar suitability, and is well adapted to all kidney complaints.

Another recipe for Gill Tea is as follows:

  • 1 tablespoon dried Ground Ivy
  • 2 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon fresh orange juice or 1/2 teaspoon dried orange peel

Infuse the herb in the boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes only – any longer and the taste will become soured. Strain and flavor the rather bitter, aromatic drink with the orange. A Ground Ivy infused honey can also be used to sweeten and strengthen the tea.

Gill tea acted as an expectorant and was a popular remedy for coughs and consumption as well as whooping cough, bronchial catarrh and asthma. The high vitamin C content made Ground Ivy useful in the prevention and treatment of scurvy.

The ability of Ground Ivy to act as both a stimulant and tonic made gill tea especially useful for those suffering from weak digestive systems and complaints. Acting as a blood purifier, it proved helpful for those suffering from kidney ailments such as gravel or stones.

Gerard also recommended using it “against the humming noise and ringing sound in the ears, being put into them, and for them that are hard of hearing.”

The fresh plant can also be crushed and used as a poultice for bruises and swellings. For instructions on how to make a poultice visit this post: Preparing Poultices and Compresses. Combined with Yarrow or Chamomile Flowers it is said to make an excellent poultice for abscesses, gatherings and tumors.

Dried and finely powdered, and snuffed up the nose, it has been considered curative of headache when all other remedies have failed. A snuff made of Ground Ivy will render marked relief against a dull, congestive headache of the passive kind.  Ground Ivy snuff was also thought to clear the head, and cure melancholia.

The expressed juice, used fresh and “snuffed” up the nose prompted relief from colds and migraine headaches. The expressed juice of the fresh herb is diaphoretic, diuretic, and somewhat astringent. The expressed juice may be advantageously used for bruises and “black eyes.” It is also employed as an antiscorbutic, for which it has a long-standing reputation.

Perhaps the two most interesting uses for Ground Ivy were its use for painter’s colic (lead poisoning) and sciatica. Gill tea was the tonic of choice for cleansing the blood and tissues of any toxic metals. And, according to Greek physician Dioscorides, “half a dram of the leaves being drunk in foure ounces and a half of faire water for 40-50 days together is a remedy against sciatica or ache in the huckle-bone.”

Herbalists Matthew Wood and David Winston have both used Ground Ivy for mercury poisoning, a concern for anyone who has ever had a cavity filled or fillings removed.

Ground-Ivy is being studied for use in Leukemia, Hepatitis, many kinds of cancer, and HIV. Early research shows that applying a lotion containing Ground Ivy extract to a sunburn decreases redness and speeds up recovery.

Anecdotal Gypsy Cures:

An infusion of boiling water poured over Ground Ivy leaves and allowed to cool will cure styes, a gypsy told me when I was in my teens, and it worked! ~Hampshire, February 1998 .

When my son went into the Army he did a lot of shooting, and the gun smoke made his eyes red and sore. He asked us to send something to relieve them, but we didn’t know what to send, so my husband went to see a woman of gypsy origin who lived in the village … She told us to put a large handful of Ground Ivy in a saucepan, just cover it with water, and simmer for about 20 minutes. When cool, strain and use to bathe the eyes. We sent some to our son and it soon cleared up the trouble. I still sometimes use some myself as it makes a lovely smooth lotion, almost oily, and has a pleasant smell. ~Warwickshire, September 1993.

Preparation and Dosage:

Infusion: Pour a cup of boiling water onto 1 teaspoonful of the dried leaves and let infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day.

Tincture: 1 to 4 ml of the tincture three times a day

Combinations: For coughs it may be used with Coltsfoot, White Horehound and Elecampane. For sinus catarrh combine it with Golden Rod. For abscesses, combine with Yarrow or Chamomile in a poultice.

Ground Ivy Tincture

Gather a few handfuls of Ground Ivy leaves and flowers on a sunny day. Make sure they have not been sprayed with any insecticide. Gather leaves from your own yard if possible. Do not gather leaves from a roadside where car exhaust would contaminate them. Rinse the leaves of dirt and pat dry.

Remove leaves (and flowers) from stem and lightly pack them in a clean sterilized jar. I find a half pint canning jar with a wide mouth works well. For a smaller amount of tincture you can use a sterilized baby food jar. Fill jar about half full and cover leaves with a good brand of Vodka (at least 80 proof) leaving about one-half to one inch of space between alcohol and lid. Poke a straw or Popsicle stick down the side of the jar to dispel any air that may be trapped in the jar. Place a piece of wax paper cut a little larger than the lid of the jar over the top and screw on lid.

Store jar out of direct light for approximately 4-6 weeks. Inside a warm kitchen cupboard works well. Be sure to shake jar daily and check to be sure that no leaves have risen above the level of the alcohol (you do not want any mold to grow). Poke down any leaves that rise up and add more alcohol if needed. If any of the leaves have turned black, remove them. When your tincture is ready, strain it through a non-bleached coffee filter or piece of cheesecloth into clean amber colored bottles. Be sure to only use tincture bottles with glass droppers.

Usual dosage of tincture is 5-10 drops in a glass of water (or hot tea if you are concerned about the minute amount of alcohol) up to three times daily. If you are pregnant, nursing or on any type of medication, be sure to check with your health care practitioner before use.

As a food source:

Ground Ivy is a relative of Mint, Lavender and Sage. Used in small amounts in spring, Ground Ivy makes an interesting addition to salad, and at a desperate pinch it can be used as a green vegetable. In medieval times it was made into a stuffing for pork.

Ground ivy is best used when the leaves are young and less pungent. It can be eaten fresh, although it’s a bit tangy. Leaves can be cooked just as you would spinach. The dried leaves can be used to make tea and are often combined with Verbena or Lovage and, of course, Ground Ivy apparently tastes great in beer.

In food manufacturing, Ground Ivy is used as a flavoring.

Although it has been used by humans as a salad green and in herbal medicines for thousands of years, the species is also believed to be toxic to livestock, particularly horses. Wild pigs, however, are reported to feed on it. Some accounts report it is toxic to rodents, while bank voles in Great Britain have been observed to use it as a food source.

The old herbals tell us that cattle seem in general to avoid it, sheep eat it, horses are not fond of it, and goats and swine refuse it. It is thought to be injurious to those horses that eat much of it, however, the expressed juice, mixed with a little wine and applied morning and evening, has been said to destroy the white specks which frequently form on their eyes.

Historically:

Three of Ground Ivy’s local names, Alehoof, Gill-over-the-ground (from the French ‘guiller,’ to ferment) and Tunhoof are relics of its role in the brewing industry from Saxon times until it was superseded by Hops in the sixteenth century.

It was one of the principal plants used by the early Saxons to clarify  their beers, the leaves being steeped in the hot liquor. It not only improved the keeping qualities of the beer, but rendered it clearer.

For reasons now lost, Ground Ivy was associated with girls as well as beer and cough cures. “Gill” itself was a play on the maid’s name “Jill”, while the feminine connection is clearly seen in the local names Hay-maids, Jenny-run-by-the-ground, and Lizzy-run-up-the-hedge.

Folk Names:

  • Alehoof
  • Catsfoot
  • Creeping charlie
  • Field balm
  • Gill-by-the-ground
  • Gill-over-the-ground
  • Hay-maidens
  • Hedge-maids
  • Jenny-run-by-the-ground
  • Lizzy-run-up-the-hedge
  • Run-away-robin
  • Tunhoof

A Magickal Herb

Ground ivy has a strong connection with the powers of magic and divination. Considered a safeguard against sorcery it was worn by milkmaids when first milking cows in the pastures. A magic charm, it was used to prevent the cows from enchantment. In many regions the first milking of the cows was actually done through a wreath of Ground Ivy.

Other magical uses of Ground Ivy included promoting sleep, meditation, healing, love, friendship and fidelity. The ritual use of Ground Ivy was popular and the herb was often woven into crowns and garlands to be worn on Midsummer’s Eve.

“To find out who might be using negative magic against you, place some Ground Ivy around the base of a yellow candle. Burn the candle on a Tuesday and the person will then become known to you.”
~Scott Cunningham

A tea of Gill-over-the-Ground may be sipped to help overcome shyness. Strewing leaves of this herb about the floors of your home is said to promote serenity and peaceful dreams.

If you celebrate Beltane, weave some stems and flowers into your crown. Pick an alias name for it that appeals to you—my personal favorite is Gill-over-the Ground. Repeat it several times until it rolls nicely off your tongue and sounds almost exotic. And, if you must pluck some of it, at least stop and pay homage to the myriad of uses of it throughout time. Ground ivy, a small herb with great determination!

Special Precautions and Warnings:

Ground ivy is POSSIBLY SAFE in the amounts used to flavor foods and in small doses as medicine. In some people, taking Ground Ivy by mouth in large amounts can cause irritation to the stomach and kidneys. Ground ivy is also POSSIBLY SAFE when applied to the skin for up to 8 weeks. It may cause stinging or itching in some people.
Special Precautions & Warnings:

  • Kidney disease: Ground ivy contains a chemical that can irritate the kidneys. Don’t use Ground Ivy if you have kidney problems.
  • Liver disease: Ground ivy contains a chemical that can harm the liver. It could make existing liver disease worse. Don’t use Ground Ivy if you have liver problems.
  • Epilepsy or another seizure disorder: Don’t use Ground Ivy if you have epilepsy or a history of seizures.

Drug Interactions:

According to Web MD there are no currently known drug interactions with Ground Ivy.

Pregnancy and breast-feeding:

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: It’s UNSAFE to use Ground Ivy if you are pregnant. It could cause a miscarriage. It’s also best to avoid Ground Ivy if you are breast-feeding. There isn’t enough information to know whether it is safe for a nursing infant.

Sources:

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