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Potential Medical Benefits of Aggressively Invasive Weeds like Creeping Charlie

Q. Hi Mike! I have a question for one of your regular guests Dr. James Duke. I have tons of Ground Ivy (aka Gill over the Ground, creeping Charlie, lawn ivy, etc.) and was thinking about getting rid of it with the Borax formula you provided in a previous Question of the Week. However, "Peterson's Guide to Edible Wild Plants" and the book "Wild Medicinal Plants" by Anny Schneider both say Ground Ivy makes a fine herbal tea, with Schneider's book recommending you collect the leaves in spring just as the plant begins to flower and combine them with Lemon Verbena. Dr. Duke's classic book "The Green Pharmacy" (Rodale; 1997) doesn't include Ground Ivy (scientific name: Glechoma hederacea). Does the good doctor have an opinion of this plant? I believe you should always see if a weed has some use before eradicating it (i.e. dandelion). Given that I already enjoy teas made from many plants I thought why not, as long as it's safe? Thank you,

    ---Jim Watkins in East Taunton, Mass.
A. Thank YOU Jim, for the excuse to call one of my favorite people, Jim Duke, Ph. D., retired USDA botanist and author of many books about the medicinal possibilities of plants in addition to the bestseller you consulted. It turns out that he not only has an opinion, he recently began drinking Ground Ivy tea! Although still active and ornery, Jim is pushing 80, and has had some problems recently with parasthesia (numbness in the legs). Surprisingly, his regular MD doctor (who Jim calls "my allopath") told him to consider the tea, as Ground Ivy has a folk reputation for helping people with lead poisoning, which can cause similar symptoms (as can Lyme's disease and spinal problems).

"I'm sipping some now," Jim told me, the leaves salvaged from a slightly frost nipped patch near his back door. "With a little lemon and stevia (a natural sweetener), its not bad at all", he reports, adding that the tea "has a bit of astringency and a bit of bitter, both of which most Americans need more of, as these flavors have been bred out of the less robust tea constituents of today." Jim adds that he especially likes that the tea is highly aromatic; a sign of compounds that have the potential to help human health

"There are an exceptional number of folk uses for this invasive weed," adds Jim, "and naturally-occurring chemical rationales to support them; as there are for other invasives like Japanese knotweed and wild grape. Invasiveness is frequently a sign of medical potential," notes Jim. "Plants can sometimes overwhelm illness the way they overwhelm their environment."

The big uses Jim found for Ground Ivy (in addition to the previously mentioned antidote to lead poisoning) are as an anti-inflammatory (to relieve pain and swelling), and as a treatment for ulcers, lung problems like asthma, and a number of different cancers.

In addition, he recounts a virtual United Nations of folk uses over history: Argentineans pasting the leaves onto corns; Chinese using the herb to normalize menstruation; the Irish for skin ailments, flushing the kidneys, stimulating menstruation, and for blisters and sores. Italians have used the leaves for arthritis and rheumatism; Norwegians internally for chest pains, and externally for wounds. And Brits have applied the expressed juice to black eyes and bruises, snuffed the leaves or put the juice into their nostrils for headaches, and have had their children take the tea (boiled with nettles) for 9 successive days in spring to purify the blood and improve the complexion.

The literature says that the leaves are generally used to make teas (fresh or dried), and the young shoots and leaves are eaten cooked as 'potherb' or in soups. The typical amount is 2 to 4 grams of dry herb, cooked or in tea, 1 to 3 times a day.

The potential downsides? The plant has caused illness and even fatalities when grazing horses ate too much. And mice fed only the plant for 3 to 4 days died. Because the plant contains the essential oil pulegone, women who are pregnant or lactating should avoid it. And common sense requires that anything remotely approaching excessive use would be extremely unwise.

But Jim quickly adds that all plants contain both 'good' and 'bad' compounds, and if we avoided all plants containing anything negative, there would be nothing left for us to eat! He also notes that "prescription drugs that are 'safe and approved' come with pages of warnings and still contribute to the deaths of thousands of Americans every year. "I'll use a prescription medication when I have to," he explains, "but when I have a choice I always try Mother Nature's prescription first."

Still, we aren't recommending this or any other wild plant; we're simply pointing out its long history and possibilities.

Jim says that if you wish to give those possibilities a try, pour boiling water over the recommended amount of leaves, put a dish on top of the cup to trap those aromatic compounds, let it steep for a few minutes and flavor it with a bit of lemon and honey. Just try a first sips the first time and discontinue if you experience anything uncomfortable.

Of course, that's a warning that applies to everything in life! As Jim notes, "anyone trying any new plant, food or medicine should proceed with caution. "Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs" by Foster and Duke (2000) recounts how one person reacted negatively: After steeping the herb in hot water for ten minutes, they drank the tea, and within five minutes experienced labored breathing, swelling of the throat, and difficulty sleeping. Symptoms abated in 24 hours".

And a final word from the one and only Dr. Jim Duke: "If you'd like to know even more about the medicinal potential of this weed, or if you'd like to share a positive or negative personal experience with it, e-mail me and I will click you back a long report on ground ivy, just one of the 3,000 medicinal herbs for which I am tallying the evidence."

  • ---James A. 'Jim' Duke, Ph. D.,
Phytochemical Database

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