What's In a Name? Creeping Charlie Gets Around

This groundcover makes an excellent addition to shade gardens and even works as a lawn substitute.
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Creeping Charlie is a rapidly-spreading, matted garden plant some gardeners refer to as ground ivy.

Creeping Charlie is a rapidly-spreading, matted garden plant some gardeners refer to as ground ivy.

Creeping Charlie is a rapidly-spreading, matted garden plant some gardeners refer to as ground ivy.

Creeping Charlie is a rapidly-spreading, matted garden plant some gardeners refer to as ground ivy.

Poor Charlie! Must be a real creep to have such as vigorous plant named after him. And people walk all over him.

Of course, we’re not talking about a real person, just a rapidly-spreading, matted garden plant - creeping Charlie - known botanically as Glechoma hederacea, and by most gardeners simply as ground ivy. Because its soft, slightly fuzzy leaves are distinctly scalloped and grow in flat pairs along the soil surface, another common name is “gill-over-the-ground.” 

Not an ivy at all, the semi-wild European mint relative has been grown for centuries as an edible salad green with a distinctive, mildly peppery flavor, and as a medicinal herb. Because of its ability to spread quickly by seed and its ability to root at every leaf node, it has become commonplace in America - and often seen as an aggressive weed.

Taking advantage of that, and over the sneers of her more fastidious garden club peers, my horticulturist great-grandmother called it “estate grass” and encouraged it as a groundcover and durable lawn substitute in her tree-filled back garden - perfect for where the shade was too dense for modern turf grasses. But it quickly ventured into her rich, moist flower beds; once, while I was very young and in need of fishing supplies, she paid me an exorbitant fifty cents to pull it from flower beds. I still vividly recall both how easily it pulled up, and the spicy fragrance of its bruised foliage. 

Though the fast-spreading herb doesn’t climb like more vine-like plants, it can quickly form a dense, low mat, yet is ideal as a trailing plant for shaded walls and hanging baskets and other containers. One of its most popular cultivars has pale green leaves variegated with white edges. As a bonus, like salvia and other mint flowers, the dainty pale lavender blooms formed close to stems at leaf joints look all the world like tiny orchid blossoms.

Creeping Charlie is often used in cottage, Japanese-themed, and woodland or shade gardens. The heat- and drought-tolerant vine can tolerate a good bit of sun, and is disease and pest free. Because of its spicy fragrance, it even resists browsing by deer.  

Kissing Cousins

There are other low-spreading plants easily confused with creeping Charlie, each with its own niche but not with that special fragrance. 

Dichondra is a native Texas groundcover whose smaller, slightly cupped leaves have smooth margins. Though also considered a weed by lawn care companies, it is sometimes used as a lawn substitute, especially in Southern California. A very popular form called silver pony foot, has stunning cascades of silver-gray foliage. 

And golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia) ’Aurea’, often called “creeping Jenny,” is another fast-spreading evergreen groundcover with rounded, golden yellow leaves. 

Hmmm. Wonder if Charlie and Jenny know one another?

Like creeping Charlie, dichondra and moneywort are both good groundcovers and perfect as “spiller” plants in containers, hanging baskets and window boxes.

Be Careful for What You Ask

Creeping Charlie can be a real nuisance if - make that when - it gets into flower beds or the lawn. I have seen and heard all sorts of remedies, including using extra nitrogen fertilizer for the lawn, spraying with a dilute boric acid solution, and various chemical herbicides; however, I can assure you that they may work for some folks, but not for others. And in the case of using chemicals, there can be severe side effects to nearby desirable plants. Hand pulling the shallow-rooted vines seems to work as well as anything - at least for awhile. Just be sure to not put it directly into the compost, or you will have even more to handle later! 

However, in my experience it is one of those weeds that though invasive, is not competitive; it grows with other plants, without taking a lot away from them. What I do is pull what I can in the spring, then live with what I missed as a fragrant “companion“ plant to my other stuff.

Still, why worry about spraying this wonderful plant? As edible plant foragers have long known, if you can’t beat it, you can always eat it!

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