Ground Elder

Short version:

An invasive perennial weed, thought to have originally been grown as food, that propagates aggressively through long underground runners. It is very difficult to get rid of, but can be done by careful sifting of the soil and perseverance. It thrives in the shade in neglected areas of soil. You could try eating it into submission. If you’re considering introducing it into your garden on purpose, here are some alternatives.

I began battling ground elder when I was about eight whist helping my mum with the garden. Being eight, I had no idea about how insidious ground elder was. I spent around two days in the summer holiday pulling it all out of the ground, shaking off the excess soil and putting it in a plastic bag for the bin (we didn’t have green waste then, or a compost bin). It was not long before my newly weeded patch was, to my dismay, covered in ground elder again. This became a yearly pointless task. Every year this ever expanding patch reappeared within months of weeding . My own garden now has its own patch of ground elder. Luckily, my ground elder patch here is contained within a border. One side of this bed has a wall, separating the garden from the pavement. The other side of this bed is paved. I’ve been forbidden to cultivate this paved area by the husband because this is where we keep the bike shed (we like to pretend he gets a say in the garden so I’m sneakily adding to a collection of pots here). It was only three years ago when I began tackling these plants properly that I learnt that the roots run deep and very long and plants will respawn from any bits of remaining root.

How to remove

I have also removed them (fingers crossed) from a garden I have been working in. Hiding under the creeping ivy was a ground elder patch about 4 m x 5 m with an extensive underground network. The only way to remove it was to dig down about 20 cm deep in this whole area and sift through the soil (literally with a sieve) to make sure that all the roots were removed. The roots are brittle, so they snap easily and it’s easy to leave bits behind (this is where I was going wrong as a kid). Luckily, they are a lovely bright white colour and often are not covered in lots of root hairs, so they do pull out of the soil nice and easily if you take the time to find them. You must remove every last bit of root if you want to see the back of them. This is why they are so difficult to get rid of and often how they first appear in a garden. It could be something as simple as a bit of root hidden within the roots of a potted plant you’re putting in the ground. It could make its way to your garden through underground runners from a neighbouring garden or land nearby.

There are herbicides available on the market, but I wouldn’t advise that for the health of your garden. It can be removed by hand if you’re diligent enough.

Why it is/was grown

I also found out when researching it that it is edible. It is actually not bad. It tastes a bit like parsley and if you pick the young leaves before they flower they can be very tender. It has some rather attractive white flowers in clusters that look like elder flowers (despite not being related), which is where it gets its name. Once it flowers it doesn’t taste as good and gets a bit papery. It is a tenacious perennial vegetable that grows well in shade where many other things don’t. It self-propagates freely using underground runners. So, if controlling this ground elder is destroying your soul you could try eating it into submission. If you have a shady garden that doesn’t grow anything you may find that this could be a vegetable that works for you. I have read that it was introduced by the Romans as food. However, be REALLY sure you REALLY want it before you introduce it and make sure it is enclosed within a barrier that is impermeable to the roots.

Better Alternatives

If you want something edible that grows very well in shade and/or provides good groundcover there are better options:

Shade tolerant perennial ground cover:

  • Watercress makes a good creeping ground cover. It creates new plants wherever the stems touch the soil. Great in salads or makes a lovely soup. It does need more sun than ground elder but, contrary to its name, it doesn’t need to be grown in water. It does grow all year round (here England) when the winter isn’t too harsh.
  • Wild garlic and three-cornered leeks are both perennial and self-seeding.  Three cornered leeks are more invasive than wild garlic, but easier to deal with than ground elder. Both have a lovely oniony garlic taste. Three cornered leeks will grow through winter, making it a great winter vegetable. Wild garlic is short lived, but lives through the hungry gap, so provides food in leaner times.
  • Alpine strawberries will propagate freely, unless you find a variety like fragaria vesca Alexandra which does not produce runners. You get fragrant little strawberries that grow fine in part shade.
  • Mint is also a great ground cover that does OK in some shade. It doesn’t do well with any competition though.
  • Violets provide small edible flowers and leaves that grow fine in shade. They are perennial but don’t spread madly like the other plants mentioned so far.

Shade tolerant taller perennials:

  • Turkish rocket grows well in deep shade. The plant has rather bitter leaves but grows edible shoots like sprouting broccoli in great profusion (these can have a hint of bitterness though).
  • Hostas thrive in deep shade. They can be eaten as young shoots before they grow bitter. Apparently all hostas are edible but they vary in taste. The leaves can be variegated and vary in shade, size and flower colours.  

Self seeding annual ground cover:

  • Winter purslane and lambs lettuce grow great salad leaves and both make great ground cover. They both like the milder weather and thrive over winter. They grow fine in shade. Neither of them has networks of underground roots so even though they may self-seed themselves into a nuisance, neither are hard to eradicate, especially in comparison to ground elder.

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