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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Stop that plant!

ground elder

One thing you have to consider with planting a forest garden is how the plants you put in are going to spread, either by seed or by roots and runners. No matter how much you like a plant, you are unlikely to want it across your entire site. Strategies that stop your own plants from becoming weeds will also help stop out-and-out weeds like creeping buttercup which can otherwise spread through a perennial setup very quickly.

A lot of forest garden species just quietly sit where you put them, getting a little bigger every year and patiently waiting for you to divide them. These are the swots of the class. At the other end there are plants so unruly that it’s a bad idea to even put them in. Nettle is one of these. No matter how many uses this plant has and how good for wildlife it is, it’s just not getting in my garden again. It spreads by aggressive, persistent runners and seeds itself all over the place. Then, when you try to weed, it attacks you. This is one plant I will stick to foraging [2017 update: this turned out not to be true 🙂 ].

In between, there are plants that will try to spread, but that can be contained with a bit of care. There are various strategies for this. Vigorous spreaders like mint and dittander are best planted in a pot sunk into the soil, or you will quickly have far more of them than you are ever likely to need. It’s also a good idea to divide your plot up into beds using weed barriers. I have a good network of woodchip paths which are there as much as easily hoe-able barriers as for access. Sometimes a row of a particularly vigorous but non-spreading plant, like Russian comfrey, can make an effective barrier. Plants that die down early can leave a hoe-able strip behind them: I have a row of wild garlic that I use this way.

Once you have beds, you can match plants by their spreadability. Put all the well-behaved ones together, then corral the adventurous ones in a well-barriered ‘thug bed’ and let them sort it out between themselves. It’s useful to observe in nature which plants manage to come to an equilibrium with each other: this spring I saw a mixed swathe of nettles, ground elder, wild garlic and lesser celandine – all useful edible plants with marked imperialist tendencies – in the shade of a beech tree.

With this in mind, I have finally allowed Margaret Lear of Plants With Purpose to persuade me to try ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) in my garden. I like ground elder, at least since I discovered that the way to eat it is to pick the only-just-emerged leaves and fry them in olive oil, but I’ve never wanted it in my garden. Margaret’s variety is variegated, so it should be a little less vigorous – and also easier to hunt down if I ever take against it. [You can find out how I got on with ground elder here.]