Growing and eating ground elder

What did the Romans ever do for us? Well, they introduced ground elder…

To many gardeners, this one fact alone is probably enough to condemn the entire 400-year Roman occupation of southern Britain out of hand. Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) is a perennial vegetable with a bad rep. Its combination of propagation by seed and by masses of spaghetti-like underground runners makes it an almost unstoppable spreader and very difficult to remove from ground once it is established. In parts of Australia and North America it is legally controlled as an invasive weed. All this adds up to a plant that is considered by most gardeners to be one of the worst weeds that there is.

ground elder

Of course, there is another way of looking at ground elder’s ebullient nature: it’s an edible plant that is very productive, grows strongly enough to outcompete any weeds, tolerates shade and poor soils and is found almost everywhere. One big question remains though: does it taste any good?

Many people will have read that ground elder is edible and nibbled a leaf speculatively, perhaps wondering whether they could eat the damn thing into submission. The result is usually not good. Mature ground elder leaves have a strong, unpleasant taste that invades the mouth and won’t let go, rather like the plants in a plot of ground. It’s a shame that this puts so many people off, because, picked and prepared properly, ground elder is actually very nice indeed.

The trick to ground elder is to pick only the youngest, freshest leaf shoots – before the leaf has even unfolded. At this stage they have a glossy, translucent green colour that helps you to pick them out. It is the petiole or leaf stem more than the leaves themselves that constitute the vegetable, so pick them off as low down as you can manage.

ground elder shoots

The simplest way to prepare ground elder is to fry it in olive oil until the leaves have wilted and the stem is tender and serve as a side dish. Even in more complicated dishes, frying is a good way of bringing out its flavour – as in this recipe.

Pernicious pasta (1 serving)
100 g dried linguine
half an onion, finely chopped
garlic
a few mushrooms, finely chopped
5 nettle tops
10-20 ground elder shoots
50-100 ml double cream
1 tsp stock powder
finely chopped herbs

Break the linguine in half so it is about the same length as the nettles and ground elder shoots (if the ground elder stems are particularly long, cut them in half too). Cook the linguine until nearly al dente and drain. For the rest, use the biggest frying pan you can find as you want to fry rather than steam the ingredients. Fry the onion or other alliums in olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the garlic (if using wild garlic, chop in near the end) and mushrooms (ideally shiitake, otherwise cultivated) and fry for a couple of minutes more. Then add the nettle tops and fry for 5 minutes or so, followed by the ground elder stems and another 5 minutes frying. Add the linguine and stir. Then add the cream and a little water, a teaspoon of bouillon or other stock powder and fresh, finely-chopped herbs such as parsley, wild celery, Scots lovage and sweet cicely. Cook gently for a couple more minutes and serve.

ground elder pasta

If you want to grow ground elder, the simplest advice is probably – don’t. It is so common that it may well be easier to find a patch near your garden that you can forage from. You could possibly even manage it gently for greater production. If you use foraged ingredients then it goes without saying that you should wash them well, make sure they haven’t been sprayed and make sure you have positively identified them.

If foraging isn’t an option, or you’re feeling particularly brave, and you want to give growing it a try, you will have to bring in the big guns in terms of containment. You need a larger patch than can be contained in a pot sunk into the ground, so choose a bed and accept from the start that it will spread through the entire bed. The bed has to be bordered on all sides by GE-proof barriers, which is to say short mown grass, paving without lots of cracks or a woodchip path that is hoed regularly. All these barriers should be a metre or more wide as the runners can go a good distance underground.

You want to cut the whole stand down as soon as it starts to flower, both to encourage new shoot production and to prevent seeding, so you can’t mix it in with anything that won’t take being cut down in late spring. One option is to grow ground elder in a ‘thug bed’ with other strong growers such as wild garlic. The bed should be in fairly deep shade under a tree or wall. It is possible to get variegated ground elder, which is not quite such a strong grower. If you have ground elder in your garden, invited or uninvited, it is very important not to put fragments of it into your compost as this will spread it into other areas. I have a ‘toxics’ compost bin where persistent weeds like docks and ground elder and potential disease spreaders like potato haulms go for extended treatment.

ground elder

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13 thoughts on “Growing and eating ground elder

  1. Thank you for sharing. Will try this one out. What about the ground elder roots? They look so tasty too.

  2. Thanks for this Alan. We’ve been enjoying fresh raw ground elder shoots in our salads for the last couple of weeks. I’ve never tried cooking it, but will give it a go!

  3. I had varigated ground elder and accidentally killed it off. Yeah, no kidding. In Colorado, lots of invasive plants barely hang in there, but what did it in was my mulching-in-place; ie. Raking dead leaves 5″ deep over the beds every fall. Killed my mint, too. They were in partial shade in heavy clay under and around a lilac.

  4. Just found this growing in my side alley picked some young stems tried it just as it was it was delicious sort of very slight aniseed cross celery flavour can’t believe I’ve had it twenty years never tried it

  5. I have ground elder in my garden, did the Romans plant it here? There is evidence of some of kind ancient road nearby – a pair of ditches (crop marks) can be seen from Google Earth.

    • Good question 🙂 I have no way of knowing the answer of course. Ground elder has certainly spread considerably since the Romans were here so probably not, but it’s a nice idea.

  6. A few things:

    1. Be careful when foraging for ground elder in the wild (or more likely, in a park or cloister ruin): the other plants in the same family are highly poisonous. Ground elder is the only plant in the family with a triangular stem.

    2. Ground elder does not deal well with poor soil. It needs moist, humous-rich soil, which is why you’ll have more luck looking for it in a park or where the garden of a cloister once was, than in some random meadow. (Aside from the fact that it was grown intentionally in cloister gardens and old farms, both as a ‘hungry gap’ vegetable and for medicinal purposes.) In my garden (based on very sandy subsoil that once was a pine forest) it seems to prefer sticking to spots that either got the original soil switched out a foot deep with compost (e.g. for planting perennials) or that get a steady supply of leaf mulch left to rot down in place over winter. I’ve also found that it’s one of the few things that will grow under a walnut tree – in case someone wants to know.

    3. Maybe I have that “variegated” variant, but mine really doesn’t spread that badly. I let it grow wild in the full shade on the north side of a wall (including self-seeding) and from there it has spread some into the lawn / meadow. But despite not mowing, it doesn’t really manage to grow any taller than clover among the grass, so it doesn’t bother me. I’ve read that ground eld doesn’t like the full sunlight – maybe that’s why. In sunlit areas that I don’t water, it doesn’t even get big if it grows on compost-rich soil. The area that I harvest, and where the plants actually bloom, has a drainpipe lying alongside it that’s connected to a roof downspout, so it’s almost always well-watered.

    4. We originally got the ground elder because my father dragged it in with a large load of either compost or manure from his parents’ farm, over 30 years ago. But since I took over the garden management 10 years ago, I have never seen any of it in new raised beds or planters filled with our own compost. And I do not specially hot compost the roots and seeds or anything. Honestly, chickweed spreads much more easily, and dandelion roots or virginia creeper vines take far longer to die in the compost.

    5. You kill ground elder by either smothering the area for over a year under a black tarp, or steadily weeding ALL the shoots as they come up, thus depriving the roots of photosynthetic nourishment. Eventually, they die. Though admittedly, I’ve only ever tried this on small plants that come up between equally vigorous mint plants a few feet from the above mentioned wall. My mother says that’s how she cleaned the bed that originally was infested, though.

    6. The more mature leaves are perfectly edible cooked – as long as you harvest them before the plant blooms. At that point, the taste changes and they also start to work as a laxative. I always describe the taste as between spinach, parsley, and carrot greens, with perhaps a touch of celery. Maybe not for everyone, but I like it. I use mostly just the leaves, though, not the tougher stems. Either stir-fried like spinach, or in small amounts in root vegetale stew or to season potato mash in early spring, when the parsley isn’t growing much yet.

    That said, my ground elder looks a bit different than yours, at least compared to the picture in the end. Mine doesn’t have white patches on the leaves.

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