I looked at the plants covering about 30 percent of the small hillside lawn behind my backwater cabin. I have found them to be as soft and comfortable to walk on as grass, and prettier when it flowers. But, try as I may, I have not been able to get it to cover the whole lawn so I wouldn’t have to mow at all.
I probably will not gain any new readers with this column, as the plant I hoped might take over my cabin lawn is creeping Charlie. For many people, those two words elicit a violent reaction.
Creeping Charlie, more pleasantly called ground ivy, is a perennial in the mint family. It was probably brought to the U.S. by European settlers, as its minty flavor made for a good addition to salads.
Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and, like spinach, added to soups, stews or omelets. Tea can be made from dried leaves and it may be added to beer to improve its flavor. It also may have been used as a medicine, or just a ground cover by early settlers.
But for many people it has become an enemy to defeat. With the manicured grass lawn infatuation throughout America, creeping Charlie has found these lawnscapes irresistible, especially shady areas, even though it can tolerate sun. Once established, this plant may spread by seeds or runners, also called stolons.
My first recollections of creeping Charlie were when I grew up only a block away from where I now reside. I recall my father fighting it in small patches for years, never fully getting rid of it, a fate many others have endured.
I recently pulled a lot of creeping Charlie in my Rochester backyard to clear space for planting the favorite nectaring plant of monarch butterflies, meadow blazing star. Although the creeping Charlie seemed to pull easily, roots, runners, and all, I suspect enough root or seeds are left when doing so to re-establish it.
Because I have usually mowed creeping Charlie at my cabin, I assumed it just grew 2 or 3 inches tall. However, in many spots in my Rochester yard where it has escaped mowing, plants laden with flowers are 6 to 8 inches high. They supposedly provide nectar for some species of bees, and I even recently watched a hummingbird feeding on it in my yard.
Homeowners who try to get rid of creeping Charlie with toxic lawn chemicals often will use some form of glyphosate, of which Roundup is probably the most popular brand name. It may or may not kill off adjacent grasses and other plants, depending upon how it is applied. Unfortunately, there is not a readily available biocontrol available for creeping Charlie, although a study on a rust fungi shows some positive results.
Roundup is currently under a great deal of scrutiny, with a recent multi-million-dollar award given to a man whose work required him to use it. Billions of dollars in suits from others are lined up, still waiting to be addressed, by the courts and Monsanto, the original developer and producer of Roundup.
Glyphosates are banned in many countries, with some people, myself included, feeling it should be banned in the U.S. as well. When it comes to health for the environment, for wildlife, for pets, and humans, especially children, I feel we should be erring on the side of caution, rather than competing for best lawn in the neighborhood.
And, since Creeping Charlie can be an excellent ground cover, it might be a good option for people to consider for areas where Kentucky bluegrass carpet is not needed.
The Minnesota governor and state Legislature recently voted to make almost a million dollars available next year to homeowners who turn over some of their lawn to bee and butterfly plants. While it is nice to see this type of commitment, it is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed, and something people should consider just because it is the right thing to do.
So, while there are many excellent plants needed by bees and butterflies that can replace manicured lawn grass, creeping Charlie might be one tool homeowners can use to switch from their manicured, grass monoculture landscape that requires time, money and a variety of toxic chemicals to maintain.