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