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Ground Elder

Aegopodium podagraria

  • Name also: Ground-elder, Bishop’s Weed, Bishop’s Goutweed, Herb Gerard
  • Family: Carrot Family – Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Rootstock long, horizontal. Forms dense stands.
  • Height: 30–100 cm (12–40 in.). Stem upper part branching, bristly, usually glabrous, base often reddish, hollow, joints with septa.
  • Flower: Corolla regular (outer corollas often slightly zygomorphic), white (occasionally reddish), approx. 4 mm (0.16 in.) wide; petals 5, notched, tip recurved. Calyx absent. Stamens 5. Pistil of 2 fused carpels, styles 2. Inflorescence a compound umbel, secondary umbels 10–20. All umbels lacking bracts.
  • Leaves: Alternate, base sheath-like, basal leaves long-stemmed. Basal leaf blade broadly triangular, 2 times with 3 leaflets, pale green. Leaflets narrowly elliptic–ovate, base oblique, with serrated margins or sometimes lobed, terminal leaflet often 3-lobed. Stem leaves 3-lobed.
  • Fruit: Egg-shaped–elliptic, side flattish, 2-parted, narrowly ridged, dark brown, 3–4 mm (0.12–0.16 in.) long schizocarp.
  • Habitat: Broad-leaved forests, stream banks, forest margins, pastures, banks, gardens, yards, parks, wasteland.
  • Flowering time: June–August.

Ground elder is native to coastal Finnish broad-leaved forests and probably also water-side broad-leaved forests in Häme, Savo and Karelia. To most people, however, it is familiar from gardens and other places around inhabited areas. Nowadays it is a nuisance weed in the herb garden, but in the Middle Ages it was helped to spread on purpose because it was used medicinally as a poultice to treat gout. The scientific name of the species comes from the Greek word for articular disease, podagra. The English name ‘ground elder’ comes from the similarity of its leaves and flowers to those of elders (Sambucus), of which only Alpine elder is common in Finland.

Ground elder’s rhizomes produce runners that make it difficult to eradicate from flower beds or vegetable patches. The rhizomes break easily when the land is dug and a small piece is enough to start a new stand. Ground elder often forms dense stands which exclude all other plants. One plant is enough to create such complete shade with its densely-packed leaves that no other shoots can grow, but ground elder perhaps also employs chemical warfare against any potential competitors: many plants secrete allelopathic substances which inhibit the growth of other plants.

Cattle do not like the taste of ground elder and weed-killers are not very effective against it. People can gather its first leaves for salads and later use them like spinach or to season food. Eating the plant will not eradicate it from the garden, but who would want to get rid of such an excellent wild vegetable? The species was also taken to North America as an ornamental, and it is certainly an undeniably handsome plant. Ground elder can easily be confused with wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris), although the latter is clearly taller and solitary, the leaves have many leaflets, and the secondary umbels have subtending bracts.

Other species from the same family

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