Goutweed. A cautionary tale.

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, when she was positively uneducated in the mysterious ways of plants, a woman bought a tray of perennials from a local garden centre.  The woman had indulged in the sort of plant shopping that she would NEVER do now that she is wiser:  buying plants just because they were “pretty,” without attention given to their specific needs or growth habits or any of that important stuff that can so easily be trumped by beauty.  ANYWAY, it just so happened that one of the plants she bought was a stunning little variegated number, with perky upright leaves and an appealing bushy look.  The plant label said Aegopodium podograria, but the woman had no clue what that crazy Latin stuff meant, and she was oblivious to the barely-supressed snickering of the garden centre employees as she blissfully bought her gorgeous little plant and its companions and carted them off to her home.

As the woman busily began to transplant her new purchases into her flowerbeds, humming happily as she did so (I’m sure there must have been some humming), her neighbour stopped by on his way to the grocery store.  He was an arborist by trade, and seemed constantly amused by the woman’s efforts to conjure some kind of semblance of a perennial border out of a long-neglected dirt pile.   On this glorious day, with the sun shining high above, he took one look at the woman’s purchases – in particular, that pretty little variegated thing, and his face took on an odd expression.  “Goutweed,” he grunted disgustedly.  The woman was alarmed and asked him what was wrong.  “That plant,” he said, gesturing more wildly than seemed necessary for the occasion, “will take over your flowerbeds.  It will take over the lawn.  It will take over the flowerbeds and lawns of every home on this block, in this city.  It will keep growing and growing until you can find it in the wheat fields while you’re driving down Highway 22 and then it will insiduously creep over the American border and be halfway to Wyoming by the end of this season alone.”  The arborist then turned on his heel and headed to the grocery store.  The woman stared, aghast, at the innocent-looking plant in the little 4 inch pot.  How could such an innocuous thing be so evil, she wondered.  But, because she trusted the arborist (even if he had a slight propensity for exaggeration), she took the plant straightaway to the garbage bin and disposed of it.  Wisely.


It’s typical in the nursery trade to give plants attractive names – it’s all about the selling, right?  Aegopodium podograria is commonly called Snow-in-summer, presumably because it blooms with airy little white flowers in July and August.  Well, and most consumers would much more readily buy a plant with such a splendid name than one called “goutweed.”  Here’s where gardening and research intersect:  it always pays to do some homework before heading into the garden centre.  The truth is, A. podograria is incredibly invasive, so much so that it’s a wonder it’s not listed in the Alberta Weed Control Act.  (I joke, but just barely).  Any part of the plant can reroot without any effort, and it will grow pretty much ANYWHERE, in any kind of soil or light condition.  Pests don’t bother it.  (But neither do most herbicides).  It is fiercely competitive with other plants.  All that being said, however, there are situations that call for such a plant.  Ever try successfully planting something in the broad shady area beneath a spruce tree?  Goutweed can handle that, and look mighty fine doing it.  What if you have a flowerbed on the north side of the house, tucked in under the eavestrough, with terrible soil that you just don’t have the energy or money to properly amend?  Goutweed is your plant!  Of course, it is highly recommended that you keep the plants contained – you should, if you can, seriously go to the trouble of digging a trench (at least 45 cm deep) and installing a semi-permanent or permanent barrier…or be prepared for the spread.  (I realize that the “beneath a spruce tree” scenario doesn’t effectively allow for a trench due to the tree roots, so wisely consider all alternatives before deciding to plant goutweed in such a spot).

And get this…goutweed may be the most underrated food crop the world has ever known!  Yes, you can actually eat the stuff.  Apparently, it tastes like spinach.  Hmmmm….  In medieval times, British monks cultivated it, which is probably why another common name for it is “Bishop’s weed,” which admittedly sounds a tad more lovely than “goutweed.”   At any rate, no word if it’s as chockful of iron and other nutrients as spinach.  I’m not certain I’m willing to find out.


(As with any edible flower or herb, exercise extreme caution when eating it.  Make sure you’re sampling the correct species.  Research, research, research!  Many plants can be deadly:  just think of it, tomatoes and potatoes are members of the nightshade family, but so is datura, and it can kill you.  When trying an edible flower or herb for the first time, don’t sautee up 10 pounds of it and scarf it down, only to wonder why you have such a fierce tummy ache.  Try only a very small amount and see if you can tolerate it.  And don’t pick edible plants from areas full of pollutants and chemicals, of course).


A great read:  Lois Hole – Gardening for the Kitchen:  Herbs and Edible Flowers (Hole’s, St. Albert, 2000)

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