What did the Romans ever do for us? Well, they introduced ground elder…
To many gardeners, this one fact alone is probably enough to condemn the entire 400-year Roman occupation of southern Britain out of hand. Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) is a perennial vegetable with a bad rep. Its combination of propagation by seed and by masses of spaghetti-like underground runners makes it an almost unstoppable spreader and very difficult to remove from ground once it is established. In parts of Australia and North America it is legally controlled as an invasive weed. All this adds up to a plant that is considered by most gardeners to be one of the worst weeds that there is.
Of course, there is another way of looking at ground elder’s ebullient nature: it’s an edible plant that is very productive, grows strongly enough to outcompete any weeds, tolerates shade and poor soils and is found almost everywhere. One big question remains though: does it taste any good?
Many people will have read that ground elder is edible and nibbled a leaf speculatively, perhaps wondering whether they could eat the damn thing into submission. The result is usually not good. Mature ground elder leaves have a strong, unpleasant taste that invades the mouth and won’t let go, rather like the plants in a plot of ground. It’s a shame that this puts so many people off, because, picked and prepared properly, ground elder is actually very nice indeed.
The trick to ground elder is to pick only the youngest, freshest leaf shoots – before the leaf has even unfolded. At this stage they have a glossy, translucent green colour that helps you to pick them out. It is the petiole or leaf stem more than the leaves themselves that constitute the vegetable, so pick them off as low down as you can manage.
The simplest way to prepare ground elder is to fry it in olive oil until the leaves have wilted and the stem is tender and serve as a side dish. Even in more complicated dishes, frying is a good way of bringing out its flavour – as in this recipe.
Pernicious pasta (1 serving)
100 g dried linguine
half an onion, finely chopped
a few mushrooms, finely chopped
5 nettle tops
10-20 ground elder shoots
50-100 ml double cream
1 tsp stock powder
finely chopped herbs
Break the linguine in half so it is about the same length as the nettles and ground elder shoots (if the ground elder stems are particularly long, cut them in half too). Cook the linguine until nearly al dente and drain. For the rest, use the biggest frying pan you can find as you want to fry rather than steam the ingredients. Fry the onion or other alliums in olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the garlic (if using wild garlic, chop in near the end) and mushrooms (ideally shiitake, otherwise cultivated) and fry for a couple of minutes more. Then add the nettle tops and fry for 5 minutes or so, followed by the ground elder stems and another 5 minutes frying. Add the linguine and stir. Then add the cream and a little water, a teaspoon of bouillon or other stock powder and fresh, finely-chopped herbs such as parsley, wild celery, Scots lovage and sweet cicely. Cook gently for a couple more minutes and serve.
If you want to grow ground elder, the simplest advice is probably – don’t. It is so common that it may well be easier to find a patch near your garden that you can forage from. You could possibly even manage it gently for greater production. If you use foraged ingredients then it goes without saying that you should wash them well, make sure they haven’t been sprayed and make sure you have positively identified them.
If foraging isn’t an option, or you’re feeling particularly brave, and you want to give growing it a try, you will have to bring in the big guns in terms of containment. You need a larger patch than can be contained in a pot sunk into the ground, so choose a bed and accept from the start that it will spread through the entire bed. The bed has to be bordered on all sides by GE-proof barriers, which is to say short mown grass, paving without lots of cracks or a woodchip path that is hoed regularly. All these barriers should be a metre or more wide as the runners can go a good distance underground.
You want to cut the whole stand down as soon as it starts to flower, both to encourage new shoot production and to prevent seeding, so you can’t mix it in with anything that won’t take being cut down in late spring. One option is to grow ground elder in a ‘thug bed’ with other strong growers such as wild garlic. The bed should be in fairly deep shade under a tree or wall. It is possible to get variegated ground elder, which is not quite such a strong grower. If you have ground elder in your garden, invited or uninvited, it is very important not to put fragments of it into your compost as this will spread it into other areas. I have a ‘toxics’ compost bin where persistent weeds like docks and ground elder and potential disease spreaders like potato haulms go for extended treatment.