PHOTO: Donald Hobern/Flickr
Lynsey Grosfield
May 6, 2016

Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) is one of those plants in my garden that I’m almost afraid to call a weed. If I do, I would have to commit to trying to eradicate it, and that’s not happening without a total topsoil transplant.

A member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), it’s a plant of many names, and that is due, in no small part, to the fact that it has some considerable ethnobotanical history. It is variously called goutweed, gout wort, herb Gerard and bishop’s weed, owing to the fact is can be used as a poultice to treat arthritic inflammation, is credited with healing the gout of St. Gerard and is often found in old monastic gardens. Brought by the Romans to the British Isles, by monks to northern Europe, by settlers to North America and Oceania and by gardeners to Japan, it now ranges across the temperate zone. I grew up with a variegated variety called “snow-on-the-mountain” carpeting a shady corner of my backyard in Canada.

Although it’s not a vigorously self-seeding plant, ground elder rapidly spreads into clonal patches via networks of underground rhizomes, the smallest of which left in the soil can become a full-on monoculture in a short amount of time. These patches can be eradicated with processes like soil solarization, but they are near-impossible to totally dig up.

Aggressive and invasive tendencies notwithstanding, ground elder is far from being a useless plant. The young leaves can be eaten raw, and the mature leaves can be made into dishes like “nordic pesto” or cooked into any recipe that calls for a green, like spinach or chard. The leaves have a strong herbal aroma that is brought out and made less bitter with heating.

Ground elder is apparently high in a number of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory and diuretic compounds, which is partly why it has voyaged around the world as a vital part of medicinal gardens. Additionally, it has gorgeous umbellifer blossoms typical of members of the Apiaceae family, which attract beneficial insects like beetles and bees. The stems of ground elder have a triangular cross-section, which is not shared by any potentially toxic look-alike plants.

With frequent harvests, you can reduce the spread of the plants by forcing them to use the energy stored in the roots to send up new leaves. Ground elder can be a nuisance, but at least it’s a useful one.


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