Creeping Charlie Weed: What It Looks Like, How to Kill It

An Herb With Benefits, Despite Being Poisonous, Invasive

Creeping Charlie is a weed or herb with scalloped edges on its leaves.
Unlike creeping Jenny, creeping Charlie has leaves with scalloped edges. David Beaulieu

Creeping Charlie, or "ground ivy" is an aromatic, perennial, evergreen creeper of the mint family that thrives particularly in moist shady areas, although it will also take some sun. Native to Europe and known by the botanical name, Glechoma hederacea, it has naturalized in North America, where it has become a hard-to-kill invasive weed. Its distribution includes all regions of the U.S. except for three states in the southern portion of the Rocky Mountains.

Part of the reason why it is so hard to kill creeping Charlie is the variety of ways it possesses to propagate itself. It spreads both by seeding and by rooting at the nodes that stud its little vines (which means you can unwittingly spread it via mowing, unless you mow with a bag attachment). It also has a rhizomatous method of reproduction -- a fact to keep in mind when you're trying to dig it out, because leaving behind just a fragment of rhizome results in the birth of a new plant.

Killing Creeping Charlie Naturally, With Chemicals

Homeowners often wonder how to get rid of creeping Charlie (although, at the end of the article, you will read about its benefits, as well as some of the history behind this interesting weed). So let's take a look at both some chemical and natural ways of controlling it.

First of all, you may have heard of the well-known home remedy for killing creeping Charlie that involves using a solution with Borax, so let's deal with it briefly here.

This method has fallen out of favor, because unless you use scientific precision in mixing the solution and applying it evenly onto the creeping Charlie plants, you can end up with a case of boron toxicity in your soil. But for those who are curious, Iowa State University says to dissolve 10 ounces of Borax into 4 ounces of warm water; they then call for a further dilution by mixing this solution into 2 1/2 gallons of water (this measurement would provide coverage for an area of 1,000 square feet).

Assuming you're not willing to risk boron toxicity, let's look at some other ways to kill creeping Charlie, both naturally and with chemicals.

One factor that will determine your control method is just how badly the weed has taken over the area in question. If the invasion is really bad, you may opt for a method that kills everything in the area, after which you would simply begin afresh from square one (whether it be starting a new lawn or starting a new garden). If you do not mind using chemicals, you could spray a glyphosate-based herbicide, such as Roundup, onto a lawn in such cases. On the Colorado State University website, Tony Koski discusses such matters as how long you must wait before re-seeding a lawn after using glyphosate.

Many gardeners prefer weed control without chemicals. At the very least, you should be looking for natural ways to kill creeping Charlie in garden areas. If the weed has totally taken over your garden beds, consider the following ways to kill creeping Charlie naturally (you can also use these methods on a weed-infested lawn that you've given up on, if you wish to avoid chemicals):

  1. Smothering with newspapers
  2. Smothering with tarps, as I also recommend for eradicating Japanese knotweed

    But what if the infestation isn't too bad? How can you get rid of small patches of creeping Charlie, removing it with a surgical precision that allows you to keep your current lawn or garden bed (instead of having to begin all over)? 

    For chemical control on the lawn, seek a selective broadleaf herbicide intended for use in killing creeping Charlie, and apply it around the time of the first frost in fall. Consult the label on the product to make sure the herbicide is effective against this particular weed (triclopyr, for example, is an active ingredient in some of the herbicides to which creeping Charlie is not resistant). While you're reading the label, also check:

    1. That it's meant for use on the type of grass that you grow.
    2. When and how to apply.
    3. Safety precautions to take.

    For natural control (in either lawn or garden), good old-fashioned weeding (hand-pulling) is your best choice.

    The problem with hand-pulling, though, is that you have to be determined to stick with it. It's not a magic bullet: The weed most likely will return after the initial hand-pulling, because the tiniest piece of rhizome left behind will eventually shoot up as a new plant. Monitor the area carefully so that you can catch any new shoot that emerges as soon as possible and remove it. The price is vigilance, but you will eventually wear the weed down (unless it wears you down first).

    An Herb With a Tale to Tell: History, Benefits

    With all the effort it takes to kill creeping Charlie, you may be surprised to learn that it was intentionally brought to North America by European settlers. Once you learn about the history of creeping Charlie's uses, some of that surprise should dissipate. But before you hear that story, let's back up. You need to know a bit more information about the characteristics of this fascinating weed.

    Creeping Charlie has a square stem that varies in length from a few inches to 2 feet. The color of its leaves also varies, from dark green to purple. The funnel-shaped flowers have a bluish-purple color, and the plant spreads to form a dense mat over the ground, making it something of a "wild groundcover."

    A somewhat less vigorous type of creeping Charlie with variegated leaves and suited to planting zones 4-9 is sold at some garden centers. Grow it in a container garden (which will check its spread) on a deck or patio, and give it full sun to discourage its leaves from reverting back to their natural green color.

    The plant's medicinal qualities have been known since at least the days of ancient Greece and Rome. The famous Greco-Roman doctor, Galen, for instance, recommended it for inflamed eyes, and English herbalist, John Gerard (1545-1607) recommended creeping Charlie for ringing in the ears, according to Botanical.com. The same source reports its medicinal properties as being "diuretic, astringent, tonic and gently stimulant."

    Never is it wise, however, to ingest any plant, medicinal or otherwise, without first becoming thoroughly informed about its properties.

    If you are not an expert in such matters, you may be unaware that it is only a particular part of the plant that can safely be ingested -- whether as an herbal remedy, a food, or a drink. 

    Common Names, How It Differs From Creeping Jenny, and Whether It's Poisonous

    It wasn't only as a healing herb that the plant was prized, traditionally. Botanical.com observes that the Saxons used creeping Charlie to "clarify their beers," in the same way that hops is now used. Another interesting fact they offer regards an alternate common name for the plant: namely, "gill" (or "gill-over-the-ground"), which derives from the French word that means "to ferment beer" (guiller). 

    Sometimes, this weed is also referred to as "creeping Jenny," but that nickname is more commonly reserved for Lysimachia nummularia. Novices may think the two weeds look alike, but, upon closer inspection, you can easily tell the two apart: creeping Jenny's leaf does not have the scalloped edges that creeping Charlie's does (photo). Incidentally, the potential for confusion inherent in such a plethora of common names is the chief argument in favor of using the scientific names of plant taxonomy.

    Yet another common name for this perennial lawn weed is "catsfoot" (its leaf is the approximate shape and size of a kitten's paw). But don't let the innocent-sounding name fool you: cats, dogs, and various other animals can get sick by eating large quantities of creeping Charlie. So can humans. According to the University of Illinois Extension, there are compounds in creeping Charlie that are poisonous, being harmful to "the liver, gastrointestinal tract and kidneys."

    When a plant has this many nicknames, you can be pretty sure of two things: it's widespread, and people have interacted with it in a number of ways over a long period of time. In thinking about the various uses people have found for creeping Charlie, one can't help but ponder how different life must have been in those bygone ages. Today we pick apart computer applications, trying to figure out how they work. Back then, the same amount of energy must have been expended on learning everything possible about our botanical neighbors. Who knew what novel alchemist's treasure might lie within an herb's leaf, if heated just right at the full of the moon?

    Yes, in the Age of Technology it is easy to overlook plants. Yet sometimes even the lowliest of weeds finds a way to work its charms on our senses -- almost in spite of us. Creeping Charlie, the despised lawn weed, the invasive alien that we spend so much time battling, is just such a plant.

    Do you enjoy the aroma of a freshly mown lawn? Most people do. Well, a patch of lawn that this garden writer regularly mows has some creeping Charlie in it. And know this: You haven't smelled anything yet until you've experienced the aroma of freshly mown creeping Charlie! Truly one of the joys of summer, inhaling the aroma of these fragrant plants almost makes the tedious chore of mowing the lawn worthwhile.

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