A plant too invasive even for me

Ann Burlingham asked on Facebook for an identification of a plant in her Pittsburgh garden, which turned out to be Houttuynia cordata, chameleon plant:


A stunningly invasive plant, which spreads by what I’ve called dragon-toothing: any tiny bit of the plant will root and turn into a new plant. In Columbus OH, I engaged in what I thought of as “gardening with invasive plants”, but there were a few plants that were too invasive even for me, and this was one.

On the plant, from Wikipedia:

Houttuynia cordata, also known as fish mint, fish leaf, rainbow plant, chameleon plant, heart leaf, fish wort, Chinese lizard tail, or bishop’s weed, is one of two species in the genus Houttuynia … [in the Saururaceae, or lizard’s-tail family]. It is a flowering plant native to Japan, Korea, southern China, and Southeast Asia. It grows in moist, shady locations.

Houttuynia cordata grows in moist to wet soil or slightly submerged in water, as long as it is exposed partially or fully to the sun. It can become invasive in gardens and difficult to eradicate. It propagates by division.

… It is commonly grown as a leaf vegetable, and is used as a fresh herbal garnish. The leaf has an unusual taste that is often described as ‘fishy’ (earning it the nickname “fish mint”), so it is not enjoyed as universally as basil, mint, or other more commonly used herbs. [Used in Chinese, Vietnamese, and northeastern Indian cooking, as a green or garnish or cooked with other vegetables or fish, and its roots can be ground into a spice.]

[Brief digression on the plant family. From Wikipedia:

Saururaceae is a plant family [not previously written up on this blog, now #81 on my list] comprising four genera and seven species of herbaceous flowering plants native to eastern and southern Asia and North America. The family has been recognised by most taxonomists, and is sometimes known as the “lizard’s-tail family”.

The species: Anemopsis californica, Gymnotheca chinensis, Gymnotheca involucrata, Houttuynia cordata, Houttuynia emeiensis, Saururus cernuus (lizard’s tail, water-dragon), Saururus chinensis

The type genus name Saururus comes from Greek sauros ‘lizard’ (cf. the -saur of dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus, etc.; and the name Sauron, of the title character and chief antagonist of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), plus oura ‘tail’ (cf. ouroboros ‘tail-eater’, a symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail).]

I was convinced I’d already posted about Houttuynia, but couldn’t find anything on this blog or LLog. Well, it seems I did, but on the Usenet newsgroup rec.gardens, on 1/2/98. Lightly edited:

Judith Reed asks for advice:

It’d be interesting to hear of other’s experiences with the plants we are yearning for, too, if you want to comment… Some of my yearnings: [a list of assorted trees, bushes, and seriously tall flowers, ending with Houttuynia, chameleon plant]

Over the years, many people have posted here about Houttuynia. The usual advice is to plant it only if you can put it in a place where it can be contained by an impregnable barrier running many feet underground. It sends down very deep roots and spreads like crazy. Also, if you break a stem or leaf, it gives off a scent that many people describe as a stink (though it’s used in small quantities in Southeast Asian salads; no one could, however, imaginably eat up a stand of Houttuynia).

I myself spent years ridding my Ohio garden of this pretty pest. If you live any place where there’s real frost, it probably won’t survive in pots; any part of the plant that freezes dies. (It survives in gardens thanks to those deep deep roots.)

Arnold, shuddering over the Three Evil Invasives in his Ohio garden: Houttuynia, Campsis radicans [trumpet vine], and some wicked polygonum [Fallopia japonica, Japanese knotweed]

From my 3/26/16 posting “Monsters of vegetative spread: dragon’s teeth”:

Vegetative spread proceeds by division, by creeping (above or below ground), by vining, or by a method I’ll call dragon-toothing.

… Each fragment [of the plant] is a dragon’s tooth, from which a fresh threat can come forth, as in Greek mythology.

(with a reference to Japanese knotweed, as treated in a 7/9/14 posting).

And then on my approach to gardening in Ohio, from the 8/22/15 posting “Seedy invasives”:

Some time ago, I contemplated writing a book on Gardening with Invasive Plants, describing my own experiences (including some less than happy ones as well as the triumphs). I started with a 1991 posting to the newsgroup soc.motss, which I edited lightly for a 2010 posting“Our Gardens, Our Selves” on AZBlogX (though there’s virtually no sex in it).

Houttuynia  spreads by both creeping and dragon-toothing, so it gets an especially severe warning from Marie Ianotti in her 2/25/17 piece on the Spruce site, “5 Ground Cover Thugs to Avoid”:

It’s hard for a new gardener, and many experienced gardeners who should know better, to resist this plant. Although the flowers are hardly noticeable, its leaves are an eye-catching mix of red, cream, and green. While I’ve known many gardeners who have succumbed to its charms, I don’t know of any who would recommend it to others. Most are still trying to get it out of their gardens, decades after planting it.

Chameleon plant is a very rapid spreader. Its fleshy rhizomes reach out and over anything in its path, forming a thick mat of roots that are impossible to thoroughly fish out and remove. Any remaining root will simply form a new plant and continue spreading. If you can smother it, as I describe [in a section on] bugleweed, or use one of the techniques discussed in this article, you should have success killing it eventually. But that’s not always possible, when it’s become intermingled with other plants. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few innocent plants, to finally rid the area of this thug.

I went through several iterations of digging out the roots and then smothering the bed where I had planted the Houttuynia (which a local nursery had recommended as a pretty, easy-to-grow ground cover), and I eventually prevailed, but it was a tough battle.

Ianotti’s full list of ground covers to avoid:

bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria), bugleweed (Ajuga species), chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata), evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa, Mexican (evening) primrose), English ivy (Hedera hibernica and Hedera helix Baltica)

Bishop’s weed and bugleweeed we encouraged in the Columbus garden, just ripping them out when they spread to places we didn’t want them in. Same with ivy, here in Palo Alto as well as in Columbus. Never tried Mexican evening primroses (they’re seedy invasives) in Columbus, but they’re all over the place here in Palo Alto, where they’re planted in traffic circles and the strips along the streets. This is their high season, and they’re gorgeous. From a year ago, in my 5/28/17 posting “In the neighborhood, with an O”:


2 Responses to “A plant too invasive even for me”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook, Chuk Craig notes the use of flame weeding by organic farers, reported on here:


    I did contemplate taking an acetylene torch to the Houttuynia. Instead, I tried boiling water, but I guess I didn’t boil enough of it.

  2. annburlingham Says:

    Boy howdy, have I got something I can use as a “gift” for any nemeses now.

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