Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Creeping Charlie Love

 I wrote this post in November, just before I got my new sustainability coordinator position. Then I was swamped, doing two jobs for a bit. Now work is a little more under control, so I hope to start posting regularly again. I've missed writing and interacting with my online friends!

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Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)
Late fall (and early spring) is a good time to weed--most perennials, native or not, have turned yellow or brown, which makes it easy to spot cool-season grasses--and creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), which is pretty much green all year. In this it resembles buckthorn, also easy to spot and cut down when the natives have lost their leaves. One way invasive or opportunistic species succeed is by having an extended growing season.

Creeping charlie is one of the most reviled, opportunistic non-native species in the upper Midwest. I do tolerate it in my lawn, as I've written in The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer. It's green and the bees like the pretty purple flowers in spring. Besides, it's nearly impossible to kill in a lawn. When I worked at the garden center, poor, sad customers would tell me their tales of woe about battling the stuff, and I would point out that attempting to kill it wasn't worth the chemical cost (which didn't exactly help profitability, but my sojourn there is a story for another post). I would go on to inform them that if you're dealing with a nice, moist, shady to semi-shady spot--perfect for creeping Charlie, not so good for grass-- you shouldn't be trying to grow grass there anyway. Best to put in some (native!) groundcovers that can hold their own a little better.

I tolerate creeping Charlie in my lawn, I say; but winding through my prairie plants or twining among the sedges and wild strawberries? Oh no, no, no. Luckily, it's really easy to grasp and pull: catch it at the right place, right by where it has rooted, give a good yank, and gratifyingly long strings of the stuff come right up--easier than digging dandelions or dealing with bindweed (see Beware the Dreadful Bindweed) any day. So I pull it when I notice it, and sometimes go out on that particular mission and more or less keep it at bay.

The other day I was patrolling the borders of my property along the fence, pulling the creeping Charlie and some remnant Bishop's goutweed--which rivals creeping Charlie in its persistence--and I began to wonder where it came from and how it had made such a comfortable home for itself here.

Creeping Charlie (left) and Garlic Mustar
 Some facts, easily Googled:
A Eurasian native, creeping Charlie was brought to this country because it was considered so useful. Before they had hops, early Europeans such as the Saxons used it to clarify beer. It has also been used in place of rennet when making cheese, as a salad green and as a pot herb--imagine flavoring your soup or stew with creeping Charlie and garlic mustard! In addition, for a couple of thousand years it was used to treat various ailments, and you can use it to make a tea that is high in vitamin C. Considering its fresh-in-winter nature, this would be useful to people with little access to our conventional vitamin C sources such as citrus fruits and vitamins. I wonder what an infusion of creeping Charlie and rose hips would taste like?

So a question arises, complex and not easily answered: How and why has our culture, in roughly the last hundred years, come to devalue plants that have had a long and honorable history of use for thousands of years prior?

Note: As a veteran conservation volunteer I am not at all discounting the problems caused in native ecosystems by introduced invasive plants. Here is a fun quiz from the U.S. Forest Service on identifying once useful or ornamental, now invasive, plants: http://na.fs.fed.us/spfo/invasiveplants/quiz/index.asp#

Related Posts:
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard
Beware the Dreadful Bindweed
The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer

12 comments:

Heather@RestoringTheLandscape.com said...

Adrian,
Glad you're back! I think it is devalued because very few people today have the knowledge about what is safe to pick and eat. I have tried Garlic Mustard, not bad, but still wouldn't seek it out. Some people love it.

I have pretty much eliminated Creeping Charlie by smothering. My neighbor uses it as a ground cover.

Elephant's Eye said...

Those traditional herbal remedies our grandmothers used, have been replaced by pharmaceuticals. We do sometimes use the juice from Bulbinella leaves on garden injuries.

Dave Coulter said...

""How and why has our culture, in roughly the last hundred years, come to devalue plants that have had a long and honorable history of use for thousands of years prior?""

Hmm. I blame the Burpee Seed Company! ;)

Megan said...

Glad you're back too, and love the topic! I'm impressed with how lush the ground ivy (creeping charlie) keeps our lawn when all the neighbors'lawns dry out in July and August.

I also use creeping charlie medicinally - I dry the leaves to use for a winter tea, not just for vit C, but it's stellar for a head cold with ear congestion and headache. That's another reason it was brought over to this country. It's an old, safe, mild, trusted remedy for ear issues and head congestion.

Heather@RestoringTheLandscape.com said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Heather,

Thanks. Yeah, it was widely sold as a ground cover at one time. Amazingly, at least one large grower still markets the variegated type as a ground cover.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi EE,

Now that I've looked it up I see Bulbinella has pretty yellow flowers. Many people here grow Aloe vera indoors and use the sap for cooking burns.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Megan,

Thanks. That's good to know. Do the leaves have to be dried? Maybe I'll try making creeping Charlie tea the next time I have a head cold.

Megan said...

Adrian- I use the dried leaves or tincture of the fresh plant (preserved in alcohol).

You want to dry the leaves the way you would any herb- out of sunlight with good ventilation, and then store airtight in a dark cabinet to keep the green color and strong aroma intact. (A glass jar works well.)

I keep reading more and more about how ground ivy was used traditionally for respiratory ailments. Have found it quite useful lately.

Here's one of my favorite ground ivy links, researched very nicely:

http://www.eattheweeds.com/ground-ivy/

Yay for free, safe, and abundant medicine!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Thanks, Megan,
I'll try your method.

John Wheeler said...

If you have guinea pigs, you might not want to let them eat creeping charlie (or, you might!) When they did, they got very hyper alert and jumpy -- literally. There is nothing like watching guinea pigs do acrobatics. But I definitely wouldn't feed it to them regularly.

peacemanzach said...

I love creeping charlie, and it was delightful to read this blog post. My future lawn will have plenty of this wonderful plant.