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Ground Elder

Ground ElderFamily: Apiaceae

Type species: Aegopodium podagraria

Names: Ground Elder, Bishop’s Weed, Giersch, Goatweed, Goutweed, Herb Gerard, Snow-in-the-Mountain, English or Wild Masterwort, Jack-jump-about, Podagrakraut, Zipperleinskraut

Goutweed is also is named ground elder, because the leaves and flower umbels remotely resemble those of elder. The name aegopodium comes from the Greek words aigeos, meaning “off goats” and pous-podos, meaning “foot”, and is a reference to the shape of the leaves, which are thought to look like goat hooves. The name goutweed comes from its use in treating gout.

Description: goutweed is native to Eurasia and has been introduced around the world. It is an aggressive invasive species in some areas and may pose an ecological threat to native species. The perennial plant grows about 1 m tall and typically develops rhizomes, readily sending out new roots and shoots in all directions. The stems are erect, hollow and grooved. The upper leaves are ternate, broad and toothed. The flowers are in umbels, terminal with rays 15 – 20, with small white flowers.

It is thought to have been introduced into England by Romans as a food plant and into Northern Europe as a medicinal herb by monks. It is still found growing in patches surrounding monastic ruins in Europe, and descriptions of its use are found among monastic writings, such as in Physica by Hildegard von Bingen.

Goutweed, or bishop’s weed, may be confused with the similar looking Ammi majus, false bishop’s weed and other species in the apiaceae family. It is recognizeable by its distinctive triangular stem profile.

Uses: As a readily available food vegetable goutweed was an important vitamin source during world wars I and II. The foliage has been used in the Middle Ages as a spring-leaf vegetable and prepared similar to spinach or was eaten as a pot herb. The leaves are gathered from February to May or June, prior to flowering. If gathered later, the leaves take on a pungent taste and have a laxative effect.

Constituents: goutweed is rich in potassium, vitamin C, carotin and iron.

Herbal medicine: goutweed was used to treat gout, rheumatism and arthritis and is thought to act anticonvulsant, detoxifying and blood-purifying. It is applied externally in hot wraps by boiling both leaves and roots together. Administered internally it is said to act diuretic and mildly sedative. No proof has been found for these alleged effects.

In the garden: It favors nitrogen-rich, moist ground and shaded areas of forests and coppices. Once established, the plants are highly competitive, also in shaded environments, and can reduce the diversity of ground cover, and prevent the establishment of tree and shrub seedlings. It is often introduced accidentally, via root remnants left in compost soil or garden waste. A small piece of root is enough to deliver the foundation for a new population.

Ground elder infestation
Ground elder infestation

Once established, goutweed is difficult to eradicate. This applies in particular to the all-green goutweed, whereas variegated variants may not spread as readily. However all-green goutweed has been observed to develop from seed of garden varieties. It has been labeled one of the “worst” garden weeds in perennial flower gardens.

It is recommended to plant goutweed only on sites not adjacent to wildlands and in gardens where root spread can be restricted (e.g., between a sidewalk and a house). Cutting off flower heads before they set seed, and cutting the leaves in spring may help starve and limit the plant from spreading. In order to eradicate goutweed all roots are removed manually from the soil, e.g. with a sieve and the area monitored closely for a few years, removing any newly occurring plants by their root.

Propagation: via underground rhizomes, rarer through seed

Folklore: ‘To preserve swine from sudden death take the worts lupin, bishopwort and others, drive the swine to the fold, hang the worts upon the four sides and upon the door” (Lacnunga, 82). – Charm taken from an Anglo-Saxon Herbal.

Magical associations: goutweed’s main properties are fast unrestrained growth and expansion in all directions, literally taking an area by storm, which would link it to the planetary influence of Neptune. It is invasive and hard to control (similar to the growth of malign tumor cells). It could hecne be used in rituals aiming at overthrowing established structures through fast expansion or the quick attraction of wealth and riches. It is rich in iron, which also links it to Mars. Else this plant occurs and smells watery. The stems are juicy, but quickly fade when cut. Goutweed has relaxing properties, “takes away the inflammation” and purifies the blood. It grows in moist and shady areas, which would link it further to the element water and also to the influence of Saturn. Use for calling upon forest spirits.

Planet, element: Neptune, water

Animals: goat, pig


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