Springtime Herbs – “Gundelrewe”
Just in time for Holy Week, this purple wildflower, common ground-ivy, is in full bloom in yards and the edges of fields throughout Pennsylvania, where it was once widely known as “Gundelrewe.” This herb has a complex history, having been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes since ancient times. Like hops, the leaves of ground-ivy are a good source of natural yeast that was used to make starter for baking and brewing. The origin of its PA Dutch name comes from its medicinal history, as the Old Gothic term “Gund” (meaning “pus”) + “Rebe” (Middle High German for “vine”) highlights the fact that crushing the leaves and stems produces a slimy sap. Like the herb mallow, ground-ivy can be infused in warm water to coat sore throats, and this aspect has inspired a wide variety of ritual treatments for ailments of the mouth and throat. Modern interpretations suggest that the natural yeast may also play a role in the plant’s healing properties.
The herb was typically collected in sprigs, called by name, and ritually blessed before applying it for the healing of humans and cattle. One ritual blessing recorded North of the Blue Mountain in Pennsylvania calls the herb by name and invokes the herb’s virtues in restoring “stolen” milk to cows perceived to be bewitched:
“Ground Ivy, Christ hath given thee grace. He hath created the clouds, and bringeth back the milk back to me. He shall restore mine until me and to each his own, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
The herb was then woven into a wreath and the cow was milked through the wreath. In other versions sprigs of the herb were tossed into the air, invoking the maker of the clouds to heal and protect the cows. Sprigs of the herb were also swept through the mouth to treat thrush infections of the mouth among children, where the herb was blessed with an invocation:
“St. John, fetch thee three ground-ivy springs and sweep them through thy mouth, so wilt thy mouth be made whole.”
The sprigs were then placed in the chimney of the hearth or bake oven to ritually “cure” the herb and destroy the illness. In Germany in the Pfalz, the plant has also been personified as ‘Gundermann” or even “Gudermann” (the “Good Man”). Creeping along pathways and edging the home and garden, the plant may have once been perceived to be a sentient, beneficial guardian inhabiting the border regions between humans and the natural world.