Of Alehoof, Cat’s-Paw and Creeping Charlie

These names, among many others, all refer to a perennial, evergreen creeper, most commonly known as ground ivy. This plant, regarded by many as a weed, had numerous culinary and medicinal uses during our favorite decade. In fact, some people still use it for many of those same purposes today. Ground ivy flowers are quite pretty, so even though some thought the rapid growing plant a weed, there were many others who were quite happy to have it growing in their gardens.

Ground ivy in the Regency . . .

Though it is called ground ivy, this plant is not true ivy, the climbing plant which covered the walls of so many houses and cottages across Britain. As its name indicates, ground ivy tends to stick close to the ground, putting out creepers or runners which can grow from a few inches to as much as three feet in length and will take root at regular intervals. Ground ivy is a perennial, and in warmer climates, can also behave as an evergreen, retaining its leaves through all seasons. The fully mature leaves are dark green in color and heart-shaped, with scalloped edges. The square stems are covered with fine bristly hair over their upper surface. Ground ivy flowers are small and are blue to purple in color. The flowers first appear early in the spring, usually in late March, and will continue to bloom well into June. A member of the mint family, ground ivy is an aromatic plant which emits a pungent odor if the leaves or stems are broken. The plant prefers well-drained soil in shady areas, especially along hedges, paths and roadsides. It is very common in woodlands, but can also be found in grassy areas, as it can tolerate a fair amount of sunlight. Ground ivy grew all over Regency England, but was less common in Scotland and the western counties of Ireland.

Ground ivy had a number of colloquial names, including gill, field balm, tunhoof, hedge-maids, catsfoot, run-away-robin, hay-maids, lizzy-run-up-the-hedge, and gill-over-the-ground, depending upon the region in which it grew. Ground ivy grew wild among the hedgerows and the woodlands across much of Regency England, and it was a eaten by a number of different animals. Some animals, such as rabbits and pigs, tended to avoid it, probably because of its somewhat bitter taste or minty scent. Sheep and goats could eat it with no ill effects. However, ground ivy can be poisonous to both horses and cattle, if they should eat it in large amounts. Typically, most horses and cattle did not care for ground ivy, again, probably because of the taste, but they would eat it if they were hungry enough. The mint family of which ground ivy was a part, was in the same genus as catnip. However, there is no evidence that cats reacted to it as they did to real catnip.

Though ground ivy grew wild in many parts of the country, it was also cultivated by a number of Regency gardeners since it was very easy to grow. Some gardeners used it in their ornamental gardens, as a ground cover and for its pretty, early-blooming blue/purple flowers. However, since it had a number of culinary and medicinal uses, ground ivy was also often grown in kitchen or herb gardens, primarily for its leaves, though some cooks also used the flower tops. Because ground ivy can grow quite aggressively, there were at least a few gardeners, in either ornamental or kitchen gardens, who grew it in pots. By so doing, they could achieve more control over the spread of the plant while still being able to take advantage of its benefits.

Fresh ground ivy leaves had been used as salad greens throughout much of Europe from at least the Middle Ages. The flavor of the fresh leaves was often described as being similar to a blend of basil and sage, with minty undertones. Some cooks also included the slightly sweet flower tops in salads as well, or used them to garnish dishes flavored with dried and powdered ground ivy. The fresh leaves were best when they were harvested at about the size of a gold sovereign, in order to ensure their best flavor and tenderness. If they were allowed to grow larger, they tended to be tough and the flavor could be bitter and overpowering. The ground ivy flower tops should also be plucked when they were at, or close to, full bloom in order to capture their optimal appearance and flavor.

By the Regency, though fresh ground ivy leaves were still regularly enjoyed in salads, most ground ivy leaves, and sometimes their stems, were dried and ground to a powder which would be used as a spice or flavoring. Though ground ivy leaves which were intended for drying could be harvested all year round, they were generally thought to be at their peak of flavor in the spring. Therefore, during the Regency, most people gathered the leaves they would use for drying from April through June. The flavor of the dried leaves was described as more mellow and earthier than that of the fresh leaves. It was used to flavor meats, such as mutton, venison and pork, as well as soups, stews, stuffings, savory pies or puddings, vegetable dishes and even some jams and jellies. Powdered ground ivy leaves were often used in combination with other flavorings and spices, such as lemon, garlic, cloves, or marjoram. In some areas, ground ivy leaves were used instead of rennet in the making of cheese.

In addition to its use in flavoring foods, for centuries, ground ivy was also used to flavor an alcoholic beverage, ale to be specific. Ground ivy had become known as alehoff, meaning "ale ivy" in German. In Britain, the name often became alehoof, meaning that which caused the ale to "heave" or ferment. The name alehoof was used in the many regions of Britain in which the leaves of that plant were used to flavor ale as it was brewed, particularly before the discovery of hops. Fresh, not dried leaves, were generally used to add flavor to a batch of ale during the brewing process. Typically, large numbers of the fresh leaves were gathered in the late spring or early summer. The proportions could be adjusted by preference for taste, but by a general rule of thumb, about a pound of fresh leaves were added to the malt liquid after the first boil and were allowed to soak in the hot fluid for twenty to thirty minutes. The leaves would be strained out and the malt liquid would be left to ferment. Like hops, ground ivy leaves also have anti-bacterial properties, and their addition to the malt liquid also had the effect of clarifying the ale as it fermented. In addition to imparting a woody, somewhat fruity bitterness to the ale, which balanced the sweetness of the malt, alehoof leaves would give it a slightly minty flavor.

Ale flavored with ground ivy leaves, rather than hops, was commonly known as gill-ale, and it remained popular right through the Regency. It was served at many taverns and public houses throughout Britain and was thought to be the perfect compliment to a grilled beefsteak. In fact, gill-ale and beefsteak was particularly featured on the bill of fare at the famous Dolly’s Chop House, which was located in Paternoster Row, about which I wrote last week. As a matter of fact, the gill-ale, and the beefsteaks, served at Dolly’s, were thought by many to be the best in London. Some people drank gill-ale because they considered it a healthful beverage, but most people drank it simply because they enjoyed the taste.

Ground ivy was not just used to flavor food and beverages during the Regency, it was also believed to have powerful medicinal properties. As a matter of fact, in modern times, it has been discovered that ground ivy has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antioxidant, antiviral and even sedative properties. It is also rich in iron, potassium and Vitamin C. During the Regency, ground ivy in various forms was used to treat all manner of wounds. Typically, the dried leaves could be made into a poultice, an ointment or a wash for topical application to nearly any type of wound, from a cut to a burn, or even a gunshot. Fresh leaves could be crushed to release the juice. This was also used topically, applied to nettle stings and other skin irritations, to relieve the pain and itching as well as to hasten healing. Ground ivy leaves, either fresh or powdered, were added to a hot bath as a soak which would help to relieve backache.

Ground ivy "juice," could be made from crushing the fresh leaves. But there are some indications that it might also be made by boiling the fresh or powdered leaves in water for up to thirty minutes. Regardless of how it was made, ground ivy juice was considered an effective medication for tinnitus, or ringing of the ears. The usual treatment was to place a few drops in the ears when they were ringing. The same remedy was sometimes employed for the treatment of hearing loss. Ground ivy juice was also used to treat a number of eye ailments, for both humans and animals. However, a small amount of finely powdered sugar was usually added to the juice when it was used as an eye medication. A few drops placed in the eyes would relieve pain, redness, and even watering of the eyes. It could also be used to treat cataracts, film over the eyes or failing eye-sight. It must be noted that for such purposes, the ground ivy juice was usually mixed with wine. In Wiltshire, ground ivy was used in a specifically regional eye treatment. The water from a specific well on Clay Hill, in Warminster, was used to boil ground ivy leaves, as a remedy for weak eyes. The water in that well had long had the reputation as being valuable for bathing the eyes, so it seems the locals believed they could increase the power of that well water with the addition of ground ivy leaves. Elsewhere, the tale is told that when a fighting cock was wounded in the eye during a match, its owner chewed a few leaves of ground ivy, then spat into the eye of the cock to speed its healing. The result of this rather rough-and-ready treatment is not known.

In addition to topical applications, ground ivy was also used for medications which were taken internally. Gill-tea was made by steeping dried ground ivy leaves in hot water, in much the same way that any tea was made. Due to its rather bitter flavor, most people added a sweetener to their gill-tea. This special tea could be used to treat indigestion and other digestive disorders, as well as headaches, colds and coughs. When used to treat coughs, especially those which were persistent, gill-tea was more likely to be sweetened with honey than with sugar. Gill-tea was widely believed to ease congestion in the lungs caused by asthma or bronchitis. It was also used to treat jaundice and other diseases of the liver, as well as kidney ailments and gout. A strong gill-tea had a sedative effect, which, though it would not bring on a deep sleep, it would have a noticeable calming effect. It was for that reason that gill-tea was often used for the treatment of the insane. Gill-tea was drunk daily, as a tonic, by many elderly people. Gill-tea was also given to weak or sickly children as a tonic as well. By the Regency, gill-tea had come to be considered a reliable remedy for hangover. However, some believed it was more effective for that purpose if it was taken without the addition of any sweetening.

Gill-tea was not the only means by which ground ivy could be taken internally. The dried and powdered leaves were used as snuff, most often for the relief of headaches. Some people had powdered ground ivy leaves blended into their regular snuff mixture, for use in treating not only headaches, but other chronic ailments, such as gout, asthma, bronchitis and liver or kidney disorders. As with gill-tea, ground ivy snuff was thought to help relieve the symptoms of a hangover.

There is some mention of ground ivy in a few sources which suggest that it could be used to prevent or stop a woman’s menstrual flow. Curiously, it seems that it was also thought to have been used as an abortifactant, that is, to trigger an abortion, in either humans or animals. However, there is not much documentation available on how it is to be employed for either of those purposes. Nor is there any information which substantiates its effectiveness for either purpose.

Ground ivy has only a few cosmetic applications. Added to hot bath water, it was used to soften the skin. It could also have a calming effect on the bather. Ground ivy juice was sometimes blended with oils or lotions to create a skin softening emollient. As with ground ivy in bath water, such lotions would have a calming effect on the person who used them. In both cases, the bath water or the lotions, they would also have a slightly minty scent, imparted by the ground ivy leaves.

As with a number of plants, ground ivy also had some superstitious associations. In Wales, it was believed that carrying sprigs of fresh ground ivy in the hand would ward off attacks by fairies. In several countries of Europe, wearing a wreath of fresh ground ivy on the head on May Day would enable a virgin girl to identify witches who might be living in the community. That tradition may be the root of the custom of young women wearing ground ivy wreaths or chaplets on the head while dancing around the Maypole on May Day in several shires in Britain.

Dear Regency Authors, might some form of ground ivy find a place in an upcoming tale of romance? Might one of your characters be an elderly gentleman who regularly drinks gill-ale, in the belief it will help to relieve his gout? Perhaps he likes to frequent Dolly’s Chop House, located at the corner of Queen’s Head Lane and Paternoster Row, for a beefsteak and a liberal measure of gill-ale. What if your hero is injured in some kind of accident while driving through the country? Will he be taken in by a family who lives nearby, cared for by their daughter, who treats his wounds with a ground ivy poultice and requires him to drink several cups of gill-tea? After initially complaining about such poor, unsophisticated treatment, will he be surprised to discover his headache is soon gone and how quickly his injuries heal? Then again, mayhap the heroine, new governess to a wealthy family, prepares a meal for the family, when the cook is ill and uses ground ivy to spice up the dish. Will the family like it, or not? Are there other ways in which ground ivy can be used to spice up a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to Of Alehoof, Cat’s-Paw and Creeping Charlie

  1. not sure about a plot outline but it’s going to find its way into my garden! Not one I had come across and I thought i was pretty good on wildflowers. I had to look it up and found it looks like a blue flowered red dead nettle which is apparently also edible [I never knew that]

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Then I am glad to have brought it to your attention. But a word of caution. While doing my research, I learned that ground ivy is an EXTREMELY invasive plant and it is very hard to eradicate once it takes hold. So, you might want to put it in an area of your garden where you know you can control its growth. Or, put it in a place where it does not threaten your other plants.

      If you do plant some, and use it for cooking, or making ale, I would love to know what you think of the flavor. I would also be curious to know how your cats respond to it, since it is part of the same genus as catnip. I could find no definitive information on that subject.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • good, maybe it will compete with the twitch grass and brambles. I expect it will respond well to being treated like mint, which is supposed to be invasive, and needs to be planted inside a buried bucket or baby bath with holes in the bottom. I will certainly let you know how it goes, and I will also see if it is enough to ferment wine into working as well as ale [ I don’t like ale and beer]

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Cool, the “battle of the bushes,” right in your garden! 😉

          To be honest, I don’t care for beer or ale either. It will be interesting to know if it will ferment wine, too.

          =^..^=

  2. Justin says:

    My neighbor has been trying to kill this plant for years around her garden because of the way that it creeps up (literally) into the tilled areas. We have it as well but I’ve always enjoyed the look of it and it’s easy enough and quite satisfying to grab a big handful and start pulling. I am on the east coast of the states, I wonder if it had the same useful history over here or if it’s even the same plant?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      So far as I know, it is the same plant. During my research I learned that many settlers from England brought it with them. They were using it for all of the same purposes as they had used it in the old country. And it seems the plant did well in many places in the States and is now considered an invasive species.

      Regards,

      Kat

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