When you believe in things that you don’t understand…

How about goutweed:

Aegopodium podagraria

Goutweed, or Ground elder (which, tellingly, made it to number two on Brian Derby’s most hated list in Cath’s weed post) must be the most hated plant of gardeners here in Germany – it certainly has a bad reputation among allotment keepers, as I’ve recently found out.

To the uninitiated, goutweed may not seem so bad: if you are so inclined, you can use it in your salad and as a vegetable side-dish. It’s been said to help with rheumatism and arthritis for centuries (hence the name), but I don’t know if anyone has ever looked at this and can’t be bothered to check.

Goutweed has a fast-growing and spreading rhizome that new shoots can grow from and start new colonies. That’s why, once it’s there and given a few years, it’s pretty much all over. To get rid of it, you have to dig out the entire plant and sift through the soil around it to remove any remaining bits of the roots.

So, back to our garden: allotments in Germany are organized via a non-profit association (Verein) with a council (Vorstand). The head of the council (you can tell: this is serious stuff!) at our new allotment did not waste any time filling me in on goutweed and how to deal properly with it: only the second time we met, he told me – his voice lowered slightly – that I absolutely mustn’t throw goutweed on my compost heap ever! In fact, what I should do (and what he does, apparently) is to pluck it out, take it home in a plastic bag and sneak it into the food/gardening waste recycling that the city picks up. This was, he said with raised eyebrows, the only way to get rid of it.


Superstition, anyone?

Instantly, I started to wonder whether this comparatively inconspicuous and actually rather pretty plant could really be so evil as to sneakily start growing, half-decomposed and zombie-like, out of a compost heap and spread again from there? I wondered whether the roots could have some kind of feature that prevents them from decomposing? But I quickly reassured myself that, if I use a compost bin with a lid – preventing the buggers from getting any energy for growing through photosynthesis – the plants and roots will rot before they can sprout again. Right?

The thing is, we have so much of the stuff on our patch of green that we’re trying to turn from this:

…into something like this:

Well, maybe not quite. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt, CC BY 2.0

…that there is no way I could slip all of it into the brown bin at home without anyone raising a complaint. So the compost it is.

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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15 Responses to When you believe in things that you don’t understand…

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The ‘only’ way to get rid of it? I think not.
    One word: glyphosate.
    It’s magic.
    – Brought to you by the ‘Slugs Aren’t the Only Pests That Can Be Nuked by Nasty Chemicals’ Society

  2. steffi suhr says:

    (just getting back after another few hours of weeding)
    …I may have to look into that!

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

    glyphosate is for wussies.
    You know you want to.

  4. steffi suhr says:

    Interesting bit from your link, Richard:
    The earliest form of the compound triiodobenzoic acid was studied by Arthur Galston as a plant growth hormone. The research was motivated by the desire to adapt soybeans for short growing season. Arthur Galston is widely known for the social impact his work had on science. This defoliant was modeled after Galston’s discovery of triiodobenzoic acid in 1943. Galston was especially concerned about the compound’s side effects to humans and the environment.
    Oh, for good intentions…
    By the way, I nervously (and repeatedly) eyed my compost bin today – nothing so far…

  5. Kristi Vogel says:

    What (apart from goutweed) do you plan to grow on your allotment, Steffi? It looks as if you have a good-sized space for vegetables and herbs.
    I’m very pleased today, as I scored both local sweet onions and homegrown tomatoes for free this morning, and I’m going to use both for tonight’s dinner. I decided to carmelize the onions, slice the tomatoes, and make foccacia to put them on, along with fresh basil from one of my hanging baskets, and a little parmiggiano cheese. I think I’ll need to wait until after the sun sets, to bake the focaccia, though … don’t need to add any heat to the house this afternoon. Ugh.

  6. steffi suhr says:

    Sounds wonderful, Kristi!
    Right now, we don’t really have plans other than getting things cleaned up – we’ve had the allotment for only three weeks. We did of course start a vegetable patch right away, but it is getting a bit late in the growing season – plus the plot had been neglected for so long that the seeds we put in face very stiff competition by weeds… it’s difficult telling one from the other right now! Since we don’t want to rip out the wrong thing, our default strategy has been to let it all grow until it has some distinguishable features. What’s promising so far is some lettuce, cucumber, and basil. Next year we’ll be more on top of it, but this year’s crop should at least contribute to a giant bowl of salad 🙂

  7. steffi suhr says:

    I’m amazed by the way that nobody so far has picked up on me writing
    food/gardening waste recycling
    …recycling not being quite the right word here. Maybe you’re just all too polite?

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. weeds… it’s difficult telling one from the other right now! Since we don’t want to rip out the wrong thing, our default strategy has been to let it all grow until it has some distinguishable features.
    There is good precedent for this course of action.

  9. Henry Gee says:

    Ground Elder. I once spent a very happy time digging some out. Once. Never again.

  10. Kristi Vogel says:

    I got a late start with my vegetable garden this year too, but the problem is rather that it’s too hot for just about everything, apparently. The tomato, pepper, eggplant, zucchini, and cucumber plants look good, and there are flowers, but none of the flowers turn into vegetables. I will re-plant the entire bed in greens (kale, spinach, lettuce, chard) in the fall, I think.
    I have a Chaya) in front of the house that is doing quite well … it’s about a meter tall at this point, with lots of leaves. According to Wikipedia, the leaves are edible, as long as they’ve been cooked for awhile; raw leaves are toxic. I’m afraid to try eating them, until I have confirmed the cooking method and edible-ness with a knowledgeable neighborhood abuela or abuelo.

  11. Eva Amsen says:

    Hey, that last picture is Sanssouci – I’ve been there! It’s pretty!

  12. steffi suhr says:

    But Richard, what does it mean?
    @Henry: it’s not the nastiest weed, I think. At least it kind of smells nice. My nemesis is ‘puncture vine’ (there’s a rather cute write-up of it’s evils here). Thankfully, that doesn’t grow here!
    @Eva: it really is, although I liked the kitchens most – they had an enormous, late 19th century ‘cooking machine’ in there. The name is misleading as one still had to do everything oneself (or rather, the kitchen staff did…), but there were lots of different compartments for baking, grilling, cooking and heating up plates. Wonderfully efficient! 😉 I was there for the first time in early June and will have to go again to explore more, including the other palaces in Potsdam. On the day we were there, the ‘Palace Marathon’ was on – maybe I’ll do that next year.

  13. Richard Wintle says:

    Hm. Richard’s Biblical quotation reminds me of the idea that if you let weeds grow among your vegetables, you may actually get better yield from the vegetable plants. Don’t remember where I saw this, but apparently it works – the weeds act as pest distractors, or something.
    Or you could just do as Jenny says and Roundup the lot of ’em.

  14. steffi suhr says:

    @Richard W, I won’t give in yet, I think.
    @Kristi: I’m afraid to try eating them, until I have confirmed the cooking method and edible-ness with a knowledgeable neighborhood abuela or abuelo.
    I hope this doesn’t mean you’re going to feed this plant to a helpless old person to find out.

  15. Kristi Vogel says:

    @ Steffi – Heh! No, I wouldn’t do that … it’s just that chaya is eaten throughout Central America and Mexico, and I want an expert opinion before I try cooking it myself.
    Although such advice can backfire – I’ve eaten nopales, on the recommendation of abuelos, and I was not impressed. Quite the contrary. Like slimy green beans gone off.

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