The other day I was walking by our side garden and I noticed this fairly tall plant with a bunch of really small white flowers in an umbrella-shaped flowerhead, or umbel.(1) The plant looked very similar to the Wild Chervil, or Cow Parsley, that is growing everywhere right now.(2) However, the leaves were different so I knew I was looking at something else.
I can tell you this wasn’t the easiest plant to identify. Based on the plant structure I was leaning to a member of the carrot/parsley family, but was having a really hard time pinpointing the species. I kept on bumping up against Elder when I was doing my research, and I knew this wasn’t right because of the structure of the plant. It wasn’t until I sat down in front of the plant with my field guides, did I figure it out.
The plant I was looking at is known as a Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria). It actually goes by many names including Bishop’s Weed, Goutweed, and Herb Gerard. The name Ground Elder came to be because the leaves look similar to the Elder, although not identical.
As a member of the larger group of plants known as Apiaceaes, this plant has some tell-tale characteristics like the flower cluster in an umbel form from the end of the stalk, a hollow stem and pinnate leaves. (3) This family of plants also has some of the deadliest plants in North America including the Water Hemlock and Poison Hemlock and some plants that can cause severe skin irritation like Cow Parsnip.(3) So proper identification of these plants is necessary before handling them.
It turns out that Ground Elder is not poisonous and it is actually a viable food source. In the spring you can harvest the leaves and add them to a salad. It is best to do this before the flowers begin to form. Later in the year, you can harvest the leaves and add them to soup as a potherb.(4)
Ground Elder also has medicinal properties and why it has its other name: Goutweed. The first time the plant was documented as a treatment for Gout and Rheumatic diseases was in Medieval Times. The herb was ingested and was said to have strong anti-inflammatory properties. It was also boiled and used as a compress to relief rheumatic pains and insect bites.(5) It is still listed as a treatment for these alignments with several sources(4,5,6), however it is not as widely recommended as before.(6)
Early on Ground Elder was introduced into North America as a potential edible herb and ornamental plant. By 1859, the plant was considered an invasive species in the United States. (7) It is labeled an invasive species because it grows in dense patches that displace native plants and, as a result, greatly reduces the diversity of plant life.(8)
Looking back at this process, I probably should have started my attempts to identify this plant by looking at its location. The plant was growing in a space that was previously used as a flower garden. I wonder if I took that location into account would I have had an easier time identifying the plant? Would I have picked up on the clue about the plants’ use as an ornamental ground cover? This may have helped, but what really helped was sitting down with the plant and my field guides and letting my observations lead the way and not my assumptions.
Do you have any interesting plants around your home? I would be interested in hearing about them. Please share in the comments.