Ground elder/ Goutweed-Aegopodium podagaria.

The goutweed is known by a variety of country names which include ground elder, herb Gerard, Bishop's weed, Snow in mountains, English masterwort, Pigweed and Bishop's elder.

It is a perennial plant of the Order Apiales and placed in the Family Apiaceae { formerly the Umbelliferae} The Apiaceae family includes well known beneficial species such as parsley, carrot, celery, caroway, fennel and angelica.  However, it also contains wild members that commonly grow in the wider countryside that deadly poisonous! These include hemlock, hemlock water dropwort and foll's parsley. Many of them are superficially similar to the garden benign species in appearance. Correct identification of the members of this family is of paramount importance if any of them are chosen by foragers for use as medicinal or culinary purposes.

The goutweed is a plant of shady places. The name ground elder derives from a supposed resemblance to the shape of the foliage to that of the elder tree Sambucus nigra. The name of Bishop's wort alludes to the plant being introduced by monks in Medieval times for medicinal and culinary purposes. It is still found growing around the old ruins of abbeys and other religious buildings. Gout weed alludes to its use in alleviating the pain caused by that affliction.

The plant is a bane to gardeners, being one of the most persistent, and, most difficult to eradicate. 

Components of ground elder

Description of ground elder

The roots of this perennial plant are rhizomes that are long, white and branching. Two to five rhizomes form at the base of each clump of leaves at 4-5 cm intervals. They have a bud in each axil that has the potential to develop into a new branched rhizome. Ground elder over winters under ground as dormant buds on the creeping rhizomes. These rhizomes when growth commences can grow 15-75cm per year.

The rhizomes which become fragmented through being dissected with a spade are capable of producing new growth. The rhizomes have a characteristic smell { as do the crushed foliage}.

The foliage that arise from the rhizome attain the height of 1-2 feet {12-30cm} and typically outnumber the flowering stems. The leaves are long stalked and divided into leaflets arranged in groups of three. The leaflets are toothed and irregularly  lobed. { Garden varieties { which are not as invasive } have variegated foliage.

New shoots emerging after winter. Courtesy of Frank Vincentz. CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

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The genus name of Aegopodium  derives from the Greek aigos, a goat + pous/podos meaning a foot, from a fanciful resemblance of the leaves to the shape of a goats foot. There may be few leaves on the flowering stems but those that do occur are much less divided and have smaller segments.

The flower stems are furrowed, round and hollow and bear attractive umbels of small white, five petalled flowers. They appear in May and may well continue until July or even August.

The seeds which ripen in late summer are held in flattened vessels, may well be thrown some distance by the wind , giving rise to one of the plants country names of jack-jump-about. They have been recorded up to 1500 feet above sea level in Britain. They were first recorded in Britain in 1578, but was known to be present during the Roman occupation. 

Ground elder can become very invasive

Photo-by Dal

Goutweed medicinal and culinary uses.

Gout weed was once regularly employed as a potherb although the flavour might be disagreeable to the modern day palate. For this use the foliage was harvested before the flowering period. After that point the foliage has a laxative affect. To prolong its use as a pot herb the flower buds were nipped out. they are still eaten as a pot herb in Scandinavia. 

It has long been employed in herbal medicine it was a considered to be diuretic and sedative. It was taken internally to counteract the aches and pains  in the joints, gouty and sciatica pains, and externally as a fomentation for inflammations.

In the 17th century on the subject of ground elder Culpeper wrote in his herbal--" An effectual  cure for gout and sciatica and also for joint aches and other cold griefs"

Later in the 19th century John Hills in his Family Herbal, wrote of the plant {under the name of gout wyrt } " The roots and fresh buds of the leaves are both used, but only externally, they are excellent in fomentations and pultices for pains, and the plant has obtained its name from their singular efficacy against the pain of gout; but it is not advisable to do anything in that disorder, the warm applications of this kind are of all others, the least dangerous"

Modern day herbals ---It seems to have fell out of favour in these modern times as a herbal medicine, however, it is still utilised in Homeopathy to treat rheumatism and gout. 

Anyone who is trying herbs for medicinal or culinary purposes for the first time is well advised to click on Wild Herb Advise on the right hand side of this page.

 Goutweed in bloom. Courtesy of Caronna CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

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