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Search & Destroy: Goutweed, the Invasive Ground Cover of Your Nightmares

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Search & Destroy: Goutweed, the Invasive Ground Cover of Your Nightmares

August 23, 2023

If I were to tell you there’s a groundcover sold at nurseries that could tolerate a range of conditions—poor soil, shade, and drought—and was deer-resistant with the benefit of being low-maintenance as well, you’d likely want to add it to your garden. Who wouldn’t?

Reconsider. The above describes goutweed, Aegopodium podagraria—also known as ground elder, snow on the mountain, and bishop’s weed. It should be called devil’s weed instead. That’s because although it has all these great attributes, it has one glaring flaw: It will take over your garden and then your lawn and then your brain. It is so aggressive that there’s a Facebook support group for those unlucky, unknowing folks who mistakenly welcomed it into their garden. Like me.

To this day, I rue the day I brought it into my own yard. On purpose. Over 20 years ago, I bought a house that had a shady backyard and needed something other than hostas and ferns to fill in the space. Enter goutweed. Learn from my mistake. Please.

What is goutweed?

Above: Goutweed in bloom in late spring at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. In Weeds You Can Eat: Ground Elder, Marie Viljoen writes, “This display en masse is appealing. But can you hear the indigenous dogtooth violets, doll’s eyes, cut leaf toothwort, and wake-robins screaming for help? I can.” Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

Goutweed is a perennial in the carrot family and is native to Europe and Asia. It comes in two varieties: green-leafed and variegated green and white. It has trifoliate leaves (like poison ivy) and white umbel flowers, and grows to one to two feet tall. It spreads via rhizomes.

Why is goutweed so despised?

Above: Goutweed is prohibited from being sold in several New England states. Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

Did I mention the support group? Goutweed can spread over two feet per year. It forms dense mats that smother anything in its path and crowds out native plants and tree saplings, effectively killing a forest by stopping its regeneration process. The variegated variety is slightly less aggressive than the green variety. However the variegated can revert to the green variety at any time.

What makes goutweed so hard to eradicate?

Goutweed&#8\2\17;s pretty umbel flowers belie its evil, aggressive roots. Photograph by Melinda Young Stuart via Flickr.
Above: Goutweed’s pretty umbel flowers belie its evil, aggressive roots. Photograph by Melinda Young Stuart via Flickr.

Its ability to grow from a root fragment. It shares this trait with other aggressive invasives such as Japanese knotweed, bamboo, and lesser celandine.

How do you get rid of goutweed?

Goutweed is still sold at nurseries. We found this Bishop&#8\2\17;s Weed at Wholesale Nursery Co. for \$90 for \100 plants. This variegated version is less of a bully, but it can turn all green and become more aggressive.
Above: Goutweed is still sold at nurseries. We found this Bishop’s Weed at Wholesale Nursery Co. for $90 for 100 plants. This variegated version is less of a bully, but it can turn all green and become more aggressive.

Prevention is the best defense. Don’t buy it. Be careful of gifted plants. Know your plants and do your research. Learn to distinguish between the lookalikes, such as golden Alexander, a native and a keeper! That said, if you’ve unwittingly welcomed it onto your property, here are strategies to eradicate it.

  • Physical removal. Hand-pull or dig up the plants, roots and all. While this is hard and could take years, it is the only option if you have trees or plants within the infestation that you want to keep. Pulling it in midsummer is the perfect time, as that’s when the plant has the least amount of carbohydrates in its roots, making it at its weakest. Never ever till the soil. Tilling will create root fragments and those root fragments will become new goutweed. Throw the plant material in the trash. Do not compost it. Your home compost may not get hot enough to kill it and you could end up spreading it all over your garden with the compost.
  • Mulching. Laying down a thick layer of mulch over the goutweed can help to knock it down to manageable level, allowing you to hand-pull whatever pops up.
  • Solarization. Placing plastic tarps or cardboard over the area can kill goutweed if left for long enough. The downside is it will kill everything, so don’t use this method near trees or plants you want to keep. (See The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Occultation’? to learn the difference between solarization and occultation.)
  • Herbicides. This should be the very last resort because of collateral damage to other plants in your garden. Follow the directions exactly.

Don’t forget to fill the the now empty space with desirable plants to crowd out the remaining stranglers. Pick native plants that do well in the conditions you have and keep plucking out the goutweed sprouts. Because there will be. You can do it!

If you spot goutweed growing wild (and chances are you will), see:

For more on invasive plants, see:

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Frequently asked questions

What is goutweed?

Goutweed (also known as ground elder or Bishop's weed) is a perennial invasive plant that spreads quickly and can be difficult to eliminate. It has triangular leaves and white flowers.

Why is goutweed considered a nightmare for gardeners?

Goutweed is notorious for its ability to outcompete native plants and take over garden beds. Its extensive root system allows it to spread rapidly and choke out other vegetation. Removing goutweed can be a challenging and time-consuming task.

How can I identify goutweed in my garden?

Goutweed has distinct triangular or heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges. It can grow up to three feet tall and produces clusters of small white flowers in late spring to early summer. The plant spreads through rhizomes underground, forming dense patches.

What are some methods for controlling goutweed?

There are several strategies you can employ to control goutweed. These include hand-pulling the plants, smothering them with mulch or landscape fabric, applying herbicides (such as glyphosate or triclopyr), and repeated mowing or cutting to weaken the plant over time.

Is it possible to completely eradicate goutweed from my garden?

While complete eradication of goutweed can be challenging, it is possible with persistent effort. It may require a combination of methods, including regular maintenance, manual removal, and targeted herbicide use to control new growth.

Is goutweed harmful to humans or pets?

Goutweed itself is not toxic to humans or pets. However, if you are using herbicides to control goutweed, it is essential to follow the instructions carefully and keep pets and children away from treated areas until the product dries or is absorbed. Always consult product labels and take necessary precautions.

Can goutweed be composted?

It is generally not recommended to compost goutweed due to its vigorous growth and ability to regenerate from even small plant fragments. Dispose of goutweed in sealed bags or containers instead to prevent further spread.

How can I prevent goutweed from spreading?

To prevent goutweed from spreading, regular monitoring of your garden is essential. Early detection and prompt removal of any new growth or escaping rhizomes are crucial. Additionally, avoid moving soil or plants from infested areas to unaffected ones, as this can introduce goutweed.

Are there any natural alternatives to chemical control methods?

Yes, there are natural alternatives for controlling goutweed. These include using organic mulches like cardboard or newspaper layers, planting aggressive ground covers to outcompete goutweed, and manual removal by digging out the roots. However, keep in mind that these methods may require more time and effort to achieve effective control.

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