Hedge Maids Spring Tonic
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
by Frances Watkins, Medical Herbalist
There is still time to harvest this aromatic plant and make yourself a spring tonic!
Ground ivy or Glechoma hederacea L., often called ale-hoof, cat's foot, creeping Charlie or hedge maids amongst others, is found in old horse pastures, at the foot of hedgerows and along the edges of woodland paths (Blamey et al., 2003). The creeping, mat forming perennial is not an ivy but a native evergreen with kidney shaped leaves in the dead nettle or mint family (Lamiaceae) and in England, the distinctive violet blue flowers appear in March through to June. Medicinal uses
John Gerrard (1545-1612) cites the use of ground ivy flowering stems in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants (1597) for tinnitus, hard of hearing and inflammation in the eyes. He also recommends adding it to ale and to clear the head of rheumatic humours. Gerrard didn't mention his sources though and, as early as the first century AD, Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica, makes reference to using ground ivy for hip complaints and jaundice. The medicinal use of ground ivy declined in England during the eighteenth century only to return to favour with the writings of Albert Coffin (1798-1866). In his book Herbal Simples: Approved Uses for Modern Cure (1897), Coffin says ground ivy was best when used as a tea for digestive complaints, kidney disease and scurvy. He also recommended a poultice of ground ivy (aerial parts) combined with yarrow or chamomile flowers for external use, the dried leaves as a snuff against a dull or nervous headache and the expressed juice, as an external wash for bruises and black eyes!
Western medical herbalists continue to include ground ivy in their dispensaries as a herbal tea or an extract of the aerial parts in a tincture. As an expectorant, the plant is prescribed for upper respiratory infections including chronic bronchitis and excess phlegm. It is also used for digestive complaints, to relieve diarrhoea, as a tonic for the kidneys and especially, in the treatment of cystitis. Tobyn et al., (2011) recommend Dioscorides use of ground ivy be further explored for treating gout and arthritic conditions and, in a recent study by Xiao et al., (2021), a plant extract of the aerial parts was shown to protect the liver, decrease the size and number of gallstones and, lower cholesterol levels.
Dosage The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends a daily adult dose of 2-4 g of the dried aerial parts as an infusion or 5-10 mL of a 1:5 tincture, thrice daily. Avoid use in pregnancy and during lactation.
Eat, drink and enjoy your weeds! Robin Harford's foraging guide, Eatweeds, includes a delicious recipe for ground ivy and horseradish mayonnaise which would make an interesting alternative for a coleslaw base, as a salad dressing or, as a spicy accompaniment to roast beef, hot or cold. When foraging from the wild be sure you have identified the correct plant before harvesting, and only take enough for your own personal use. Perhaps also take a photo and make a note of its location so you can find it again next year!
In early medieval England, Saxons clarified their beers and ale with the aerial parts of ground ivy and if you wish to make a herbal beer, Stephen Bhuner (1998, p.345) has a great recipe for ground ivy ale. You will need '5 pounds malted barley, 4 gallons of water, 2 pounds of brown sugar and 3 ounces of ground ivy (aerial parts) plus yeast.' My interpretation of his instructions is to collect all of your ingredients together, place the barley in a saucepan and cover with water, bring to the boil for 90 minutes before adding the remaining water and strain.
Reheat the liquid, add the ground ivy and boil for one hour, strain and stir in the sugar until it has completely dissolved and pour into a container. Leave the liquid to cool down to 70 degrees and add the yeast (2 g of dried yeast per gallon) , cover container and leave for one week. Add a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to each of the sterilised bottles, fill with the strained liquid and seal tight. Store in the dark and the delicious ale will be ready to drink in around two weeks. If you don't have time to make a spring ale why not try a 'Gill tea' described by Fernie (1897) as a favourite remedy of the poor for treating persistent coughs and excess phlegm. An infusion is made from an ounce of dried herb and a pint of boiling water, steeped and sweetened with liquorice, sugar or honey and when cooled, the patient is to drink a wineglass three to four times a day. Its important to remember older recipes stating a 'wineglassful' relates to a smaller measure than that of today for example, a wineglass in the eighteenth century was almost half of the current 125 mL small wine measure.
Blamey, M., Fitter, R. and Fitter, A. (2003). Wild flowers of Britain and Ireland. A & C Black. Buhner, S. H. (1998). Sacred and herbal healing beers. Siris Books. Fernie, W.T. (1897). Herbal simples: Approved for modern uses of cure. (2nd ed). Boericke & Tafel. Available online https://metro-naturalist.com/Fernie_Herbal/Fernie_Herbal87.html Tobyn, G., Denham, A. and Whitelegg, M. (2011). The Western herbal tradition: 2000 years of medicinal plant knowledge. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
Xiao, M., Yang, M., Ji, X. et al. (2021). Protective effect of Glechoma hederacea extract against gallstone formation in rodent models. BMC Complement Med Ther21, 199. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-021-03368-1