By Fred Seitz
I was walking in the backyard with my silly dog and noted a pleasant smell rising up from the ground. Clearly, this smell was not courtesy of my dog. Then I realized that my backyard was almost totally covered with gill-over-the-ground (Glechoma hederacea for Latin name buffs), a very familiar mint. It has numerous other common names, including ground ivy and catsfoot; one of the most familiar is creeping Charlie.
Gill reportedly comes from the French word “guiller,” which means “to ferment ale.” Ground ivy was used as a flavoring and clearing agent in brewing beer before being replaced by hops, according to a plant guide from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
I’d met this little plant years ago in an edible and medicinal plant class. It is not native to North America, but was brought from Eurasia by early settlers because of its edible nature and many medicinal uses. It has spread over much of the country, except for a few states in the Southwest. Gill likes damp areas like forests, wetlands and well-watered yards.
Like most mints, gill has a square stem and a strong odor. In spring, it has some fairly showy pink blossoms, which are the one part of the plant that can be toxic to humans if consumed in large amounts. The kidney-shaped leaves with scalloped edges can usually be found year-round.
Gill leaves make a flavorful tea and garnish, and in modest quantities is a safe addition to salads. The plant can be toxic to my mutt and other critters. Fortunately, most animals do not like the plant’s taste and avoid consuming it.
Gill-over-the-ground tea reputedly relieves congestion and even mild fever, and it has had many other medicinal uses for hundreds of years. During the 19th century, ground ivy was used in the U.S. to treat lung and kidney diseases, asthma, jaundice and hypochondria. And it was snuffed to treat persistent headaches. Its use has been documented in many edible and medicinal plant books, including Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Healthful Herbs and The Spotters Guide to Healing Plants by Dr. Jaroslav Kresanek.
Before ingesting ground ivy leaves in any form, make sure you have the correct plant, as there are other groundcovers that have a similar appearance, like purple dead nettle. As when eating any plants found in the wild, wash the leaves thoroughly. Try a very small piece on the tip of your tongue first and wait a minute or two. Gill leaves have a slightly bitter taste but should be safe for human consumption. Just don’t share them with your pets.