The Big Mistake: Creeping Charlie
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 23, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I keep telling myself that many years ago there was a need for Glechoma hederacea. As I pull long strands of it out of my mulch all summer long, I remind myself that I am the one who planted it thirty five years ago, against my mother's better judgment I will have to admit. And while I am still trying to justify the fact that it has now crept to the very perimeter of my own lawn, I tell myself that it does bring back some nice memories.
You can call it ground ivy, or you might call it cat's foot. I have several names for it that I can't print here, but my great Aunt Bett called it creeping charlie. She said it was a necessary plant to have in a medicine garden. My mother thought otherwise when I brought it home and planted it in her garden. I might have been about 10 when Aunt Bett and I gathered it from her sunlit hillside, and I thought I would not live to see 11 when my mother saw it growing among her nasturtiums.
Creeping charlie is from the mint family, and Aunt Bett made tea from its tiny leaves. She said that the tea was a remedy for coughs, but I am here to tell you that when she made it for me it was such a nasty bitter drink that I coughed even more. She added honey to it and told me to drink it anyway. It tasted as terrible as an asphidity bag smelled.
Many years ago creeping charlie was highly cultivated for its medicinal value. It is a perennial evergreen ground creeper extending its trailing runners as much as 36 inches. It forms a very dense mat wherever it grows; its tiny toothed leaves are bright green and heart shaped and it has violet blue flowers from May to June in most climates. The flowers are also very tiny. The plant has a mild minty odor, but its taste is truly bitter. I remember it very well.
Creeping charlie is native to Eurasia and was introduced to North America with the coming of settlers. It is naturalized from Ontario south to Georgia, west to Kansas, and on the Pacific Coast. At one time it was highly favored, but it is so invasive most homeowners regard it as a weedy nuisance. In the first century the Greek physician Dioscorides taught that its leaf tea was a remedy for sciatica. Later, other herbalists followed his teachings, and began to boil it in beef or mutton broth as a remedy for bad backs and for treating eye ailments. One medical specialist declared that it was the very best treatment for eye problems when mixed with celandine, daisies, sugar and rose water. By the time it came to America it was discovered to have a high vitamin C content, so doctors and herbalists alike used it as a treatment for scurvy. By the nineteenth century American physicians administered the sap or a tea to treat asthma and coughs, and they recommended the plant as a treatment for fever and lead poisoning as well. 
Current research does not substantiate its use for any of those remedies, and my dear mother would likely be happy to know that. My mistake started when I decided to pull creeping charlie up by its roots and plant it in Mom's medicine garden. She already had other medicinal herbs like bee balm and spiderwort; she had a lot of others, too, and along the front of the garden she had planted orange nasturtiums. There was space between them and I thought I would fill those spaces with creeping charlie. I figured it would look really nice growing down the rock wall that was waist high and kept the back yard mountain from creeping down onto the back porch.
Plants grew easily and quickly in the mountains of Kentucky, rich, moist soil and dappled sunshine seemed to be just what creeping charlie needed. By the time my mother noticed it between her orange nasturtiums, it had taken off just like Jack's beanstalk. It not only crept down the rock wall, but it went in every other direction, too. Keep in mind there were mountains surrounding our house. Sound bounces off mountains, and when there is thunder it is much louder than it is in the flatlands. My mother's yelling bounced off the mountains several times while I tried to pretend I didn't hear it. "What have you planted in my garden, Sharon? This better not be what it looks like! I want every one of these weeds out of this garden NOW!"
I tried to tell her it was a good medicine plant, she didn't listen. I explained that it was to cure coughs, she covered her ears. I even promised that I would keep it cut short so that it didn't hang over the rock wall. But that weed had to go. About 35 years ago when I moved to western Kentucky, my mother and I gathered plants from her garden to be transplanted four hundred miles away in my own new garden. We thinned daylilies, we gathered bunches of bee balm, we dug graveyard moss and everything else I simply had to have. When I thought I had everything packed nicely in the trunk and the back seat of my car, my mom came down the front steps and handed me one more bag. She said it was a plant that she knew I really needed.
It was a little start of creeping charlie. I laughed at the time and brought it home with me. I planted it along the edge of a rock wall. It was only a couple of small vines, nothing to worry about I thought. Ha. My mother did to me what I did to her all those years ago and now I have creeping charlie all over my back yard. I noticed last fall when I was raking leaves that charlie had crept down along the eastern side of my house beneath the huge oak tree where nothing else will grow. And on the side that gets the setting sun, charlie is the only thing that seems to be green during dry autumn weather. I expect it will soon make an attempt to climb up the bricks and saunter its way into my house just any day now.
If there were mountains here in western Kentucky, I think you would be able to hear my words bouncing around like thunder from one side to the other. And charlie would keep right on growing.
 "Magic and Medicine of Plants", The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1986
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to photographers Sarahskeeper for the thumbnail, Terry for the close shot of the foliage, gregoriuspax for the photo of growth in an area, and poppysue for the cluster of blossoms.
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