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.
People in the u.k. class it as a weed and remove it from their gardens. I’ll have to share with them that the leaves can be used in salads and that it’s a valuable medicinal plant. I didn’t know that! When we moved into our present house, the forecourt garden (postage stamp size!) was covered in ground elder. We’ve left a patch of it next to bright pink roses and it looks really pretty.
Hi Lesley, I thinking that this plant was very commonly used as ground cover before people noticed how easily it could spread and take over a garden. I agree that it is interesting that it is edible. One of the other names for this plant, Bishop’s Weed, came to be because this plant was found outside of a lot of monasteries. The story goes that the monks and nuns would grow it for both food and medicinal purposes. I also read somewhere that the monks had a lot to do with distributing the plant. I can’t remember where I read that or I would give you a reference.
It really does spread wildly as the roots send out runners, but I’ve found that it pulls out of
the ground quite easily, which is just as well! 😀
I agree, it could well have been grown in herbal gardens by the monks and nuns.
I didn’t recognize the Ground Elder, and I haven’t seen it in our garden here in Maryland. With the other name of Goutweed, it’s a plant I probably would’ve steered clear of — but it’s neat that the plant is considered to have medicinal value. As far as interesting plants here, maybe our fig tree is the most interesting. It’s about 3 years old and hasn’t grown any fruit yet. I added fertilizer to the soil around it, so here’s hoping that will help.
Hi Dave, Thanks for the comment. I have heard that Fig trees and other fruit trees can take anywhere from 2-5 years of growth before they start producing fruit. Maybe you just have a late bloomer!
The goutweed name got my attention, and I wondered if it was used as a gout remedy. My mother has occasional attacks of gout. Happily, she has not had one in quite a while. We usually give her cherries or strawberries to help combat it.
thanks for your thorough description of the process you went through, Mark – it seems like a subject I might get into vicariously. Now by chance, I have a similar looking plant in my yard so will check. You don’t mention any scent? Elder has a quite distinct scent? And another question: The leaves in the drawing look quite different from the ones in your photo? I am in the UK, so varieties might be different again in any case. Thanks.
Hi Barbara, I actually can’t smell that well so scents are a problem for me! So I have no idea what it smells like. The leaves on the flowers stalk also look different from the ground cover leaves. And then the ornamental version of the leaves have that white edging. The wild version doesn’t. It would be interesting to know if we are talking about the same plant or not. The Wikipedia article is good for some basic identification specifics
will check – don’t have a smart phone but may in fact be able to take some pics before too long – thanks for letting me know.
I am now thinking I may have to go out and find some elderberry. We may have another post coming soon.
good idea – the information I found online seems rather confusing as different sites refer to different features and one might come away feeling they confuse the two!
ok – so with the leaves and the scent, I have now decided what I have is Elderberry. I did not get any berries last year, so forgot about it, but the scent, once I stick my nose in the flower is quite clear. I don’t have the technical terms to describe the leaves so here goes:
elderflower has a sweetish smell with flowery tone that I can only describe as ascending or rising, i.e. more than uplifting … so far my inadequate attempt. Do you drink wine with any pleasure? If so, you may come up with a sense of what I mean.
Hi Barbara, I like that description. I can follow it. I like the ascending flowery tone. Very nice! But no, I don’t drink wine. Thanks for doing this research and sharing what you found!
It is everywhere over here!
At the moment there are lots of nettles here in Scotland and Buttercups. I am hoping to go picking nettles with my friend so we can make nettle tea. We are both interested in foraging and she found some good places we can look for fruit. In about a month or so, my area will be covered in Wild Raspberries..they are everywhere!
Hi Ananka, I haven’t had nettle tea before. I do, however, know people that like it. And yes it is almost berry season. The blackberries flowers and just now starting to drop their petals. Can’t wait for that.
it’s delicious, I buy tea bags in Germany when visiting and it helps me with low level rheumatic symptoms plus tastes nice.
We have it in the Pacific Northwest and call it Bishopsweed, but as far as invasives go, it one that I rarely have to worry about.
Hi Melanie, interesting that the common name is Bishopsweed. This is probably why many botanist call everything by the scientific name. The common names can differ from place to place.
It’s kind of a joke how many common names one plant can have, isn’t it? 🙂
Definitely! And it can be super confusing unless you know.
now I have a small project: how do you describe the scent of elderflower to someone without much of a sense of smell – other than calling it divine? I have enlisted the help of a couple of wine tasters who also appear to be native speakers of (American) English. So – watch this space. 🙂