Ground Elder

Ground Elder is a fast-growing perennial that spreads swiftly to make a carpet of greenery in beds and borders, crowding out less vigorous plants.

Aegopodium podagraria, sometimes known as ground elder, is an invasive perennial weed that quickly produces a mass of leaves that outcompetes other plants in the area.

It’s especially difficult to get rid of since its roots can sneak amongst other plants. It may also re-grow from little pieces of root, which makes picking it out much more difficult.

This blog post will provide an in-depth guide on what Ground Elder are, how they grow, and how to eradicate them from your garden.

Quick Facts

Common names: Ground elder, goutweed, gout wort, bishop’s weed, snow-in-the-Mountain, English Masterwort, Wild Masterwort
Scientific name: Aegopodium podagraria
Family: Apiaceae
Origin: native
Flowering season: May to August
Habitat: garden beds and borders, flowerbeds, new lawns, cracks in paving, graveyards, waste ground and all other soil types

Ground Elder Identification

Ground elder is a perennial herbaceous plant. It spreads through underground stems called rhizomes, which can regenerate from a single part left in the ground.

It can start from seed, but it’s more likely to come through rhizomes from nearby gardens or stem pieces in composts or manures.

Leaves appear in spring and summer, but rhizomes and roots persist year-round.

Ground Elder will rapidly reproduce and create a carpet of plants from rhizomes, which can grow up to 90 cm per year.

What does Ground Elder look like?

Characteristics that make up the Ground Elder leaf, stem, root and flower are detailed below.

As with most perennial weeds, never allow it to become established. This will make it more difficult to fully control. Early identification and eradication are very important.

Grows to a height between 30 to 100cm.

Serrated edge green leaves of the Ground elder

Leaves: The flowers bear a resemblance to those of the elder tree (which is completely unrelated), and this gives the weed its common name.

Leaves are up to 20cm long with broad, trefoil, toothed leaflets.

Toothed, ovate and usually in groups of five, two lower ‘leaves’ can be seen to be splitting to appear as seven leaves in some specimens. Light green, shiny and translucent when young becoming dark green with a matt finish.

Long green stems of the Ground elder

Stem: Except for the flowering shoot, ground elder stems remain below, and the leaf stalk, not the stem, emerges above ground. The leaf stem has an interesting triangular profile.

Roots: Ground elder can easily creep in from a neighbouring garden or surrounding wasteland since it spreads by rhizomes. It can also be accidentally introduced with new plants if bits of its fleshy, white rhizome is tucked away among the roots of the plant or concealed within the compost of the root ball.

Up to five rhizomes form at the base of each tuft of leaves. These have scale leaves at 4-5 cm intervals with a bud that develops into a branched root.

The roots of ground-elder delve notoriously deep into the soil and can be hard to get rid of, hence the common name of ‘Devil’s guts’.

The flowers of the Ground Elder grow in clumps

Flowers: Tiny white flowers on an umbel (umbrella-shaped) that appear from May to June.

Flowers are in umbels up to 6cm across, with individual flowers being white, 1mm across, and with 5 cleft petals,

Fruits/Seeds:  Ground Elder also seeds itself by its flat umbrella heads of white flowers. Fruits are flattened and egg-shaped.

Ground Elder Seasonal Changes

The plant’s appearance and properties vary through the seasons. In spring when it starts to grow, the leaves look like a small clover and are green on top with pale yellow underneath. The stem can be light pink or purple in colour but is often brown near ground level where there has been soil contact for an extended period of time.

Ground elder grows as tall as four feet during its flowering season from June until July so by September you will see dark red berries dotting around taller plants that have matured enough to produce fruit even though they’re still relatively young at this point in their life cycle.

Its leaves vary from light green to dark purple depending on the season, with new growth appearing as lighter shades than older foliage

One distinguishing characteristic of this species is its distinctive seed pods that twist back upon themselves at maturity; these elongated structures measure about two inches long and one inch wide when they are fully ripe (typically late summer).

Ground Elder in Spring

In the spring, ground elder’s leaves will unfurl and grow up to a foot tall. They’re pale green with purple veins that resemble those of hostas.

Early in the year, shoots with dark green leaves burst through from the soil. These are followed in late spring and early summer by tall stalks that support several flat heads of white flowers.

In the springtime, ground elder plants are full of leaves and small white flowers. They have green stems that grow just below surface level to where they will eventually form roots near your garden bedding plantings.

Ground Elder in Summer

In the summertime, the leaves are green and glossy on top while below they turn brownish from their own juices.

It has serrated leaves and bears white flowers with purple-green veins on its stem, which are followed by clusters of seeds.

Ground elder blooms in the summer and is a beautiful purple flower, but most people don’t know that it’s poisonous.

The leaves of the ground elder are feathery, and it grows in clumps with a tall stem. Its flowers have five petals that grow up to 12 inches high which range from pinkish-white to purple. 

The flower is followed by seed pods that can be anywhere between 3/4 inch long and 2 1/2 inches wide; they vary between green or brown depending on their age as well as whether or not there’s been any rain recently!

Ground Elder in Autumn

Ground Elder is a herbaceous perennial that grows up to 3 feet tall in dry, open woods. When autumn arrives and the leaves turn reds, oranges, and yellows on their way down from the trees; Ground Elder’s green foliage also turns shades of yellow.

It dies down to its roots in late autumn and winter, lulling you into believing it has gone away! But it will grow back with a vengeance the following year.

Ground Elder in Winter

This is the time of year when ground elder starts to have a beige hue. It transforms from green and lush in summer, to brown with yellow tones during autumn, then finally turning white as it dies off for winter – if you can’t spot any leaves on your plants at all this might mean they’re already dead!

The leaves of the ground elder plant are greyish-green. The shape is like an oval, rather than long and slender.

In winter it looks quite different from in spring where their flowers can be seen coming up through the snow with little white buds on top followed by clusters of bright yellow blossoms that hang down into early summer when they will turn brown and die off for another year.

Infestation of Ground elder alongside a border
Ground elder – Aegopodium podagraria

How to get rid of Ground Elder

Apply systemic weed killer to the foliage as soon as it appears in spring. Re-apply throughout the growing season at four- to six-week intervals, or as soon as any re-growth appears.

Because its rhizomes are close to the surface of the soil, ground elder infestations can be reduced by carefully removing them with a garden fork. However, complete eradication necessitates monitoring, since even the tiniest bit of root left in the soil will result in the growth of a new plant.

Tackling large infestations of Ground elder in a well-planted bed can be difficult. Getting rid of it completely requires time and patience.

Method One – Herbicide Treatment

Contact weed killers will burn and kill the foliage but will have no effect on the roots, which will continue to grow, produce new leafy growth and spread further.

For best results, spray with a weed killer based on glyphosate. This is a systemic weed killer, which is absorbed by the leaves, then moves down to the roots to kill them.

Spray the leaves when the ground elder is growing actively; this is mainly from March/April to September/October.

The larger the leaf area present, the greater the amount of weed killer that can be absorbed and move down to the roots. So don’t bother spraying when the growth first emerges through the soil – wait until the leaves unfurl and enlarge.

Use a fine spray to thoroughly coat the leaves in small droplets.

One application of weed killer is unlikely to kill all the Ground elder. You may need to spray once, allow the ground elder to die down, and then spray any regrowth again. Three or more applications a year, over a couple of years, may be needed to completely kill it, depending on how extensive the root system is.

Most contact weed killers and glyphosate are total weed killers – that is they will damage or kill any plants whose leaves they are sprayed on. Make sure you keep the spray off wanted plants – including lawns – and, if necessary protect plants by covering with polythene or similar when spraying.

Roundup Gel, which is smeared onto, and sticks to, the weed leaves, maybe a better option when trying to treat Ground elder growing through or close to wanted plants.

Established ground elder can be controlled by spraying with a tough weed killer containing glyphosate (e.g. Roundup Tree Stump & Root Killer, SBM Job done Tough Weedkiller (soluble sachet only), SBM Job done Tough Tree Stump Killer (soluble sachet only), Doff Weedout Extra Tough Weedkiller or Westland Resolva Pro Xtra Tough Weedkiller).

Apply the spray in mid-summer when there is lots of leafy growth, then reapply if necessary later in summer.

Spraying in the evening will be far more effective than spraying during the day as more of the chemical will be absorbed by the foliage.

Use weedkillers safely. Always read the label and product information before use.

Method Two – Digging it out

Begin by removing as much ground elder as you can, including the white, spreading roots. Even a small portion left in the ground can re-grow into a new plant, so be careful. A fork and hand fork are usually preferable over a spade and trowel, as the latter will cut the roots into smaller pieces.

Covering the soil with a weed-control membrane (landscape cloth) or even thick black polythene after you’ve removed the majority of the ground elder will block light and starve the roots, causing them to die.

It can take several years for the ground elder to be entirely depleted and eliminated in this manner.

If the roots are growing amid existing plants, you may need to lift them when they are dormant, between autumn and the end of winter, and pluck out all of the ground elder roots. Then transplant in fresh soil or container them for later planting.

Regular mowing throughout the year, as well as the use of lawn weed killers, should weaken and eventually destroy it in lawns.

Due to how quickly the affected area grows, you will only need to check it every two weeks after the initial sortie. Locate each of the new shoots with care and hoe them off at or near ground level. This could take up to a year! It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be successful in a single year.

Ground Elder Management

In new lawns, the Ground elder will usually be starved for growth by repeated mowing, and should not persist for long.

If it is coming through from a relatively small area, it is possible to put a vertical physical barrier in the soil on your boundary to prevent it from coming in.

Suitable root control barriers and membranes are available from builders’ merchants.

In Conclusion

Ground elder is a terrifyingly persistent weed. The soil should be repeatedly dug over and the rhizomes removed and burnt. Just one digging session will not eradicate all the roots and rhizomes.

Where it invades a planted area it may be necessary to dig out the desirable plants and clean off their roots to remove rhizome fragments.

Ground Elder are a very adaptable weed that grows in our gardens today and is one of the most resistant. However, using one of the products mentioned below will help eliminate it.