why won’t this plant die? houttuynia cordata, the chameleon plant

I HAVE KILLED MANY PLANTS in my gardening career, most of them unintentional and many of them regrettable. So why can’t I kill Houttuynia cordata, the so-called chameleon plant, despite years and years of trying?

I bought the plant more than a decade ago, for the showiness of its (then) variegated red, green and yellow foliage and its touted use as a groundcover in moist shade (including plunged right in a pot in water, apparently). Certain that I had acquired a treasure, I was terribly upset when it didn’t return from underground after its first winter with me. Dead, I reported in my newspaper garden column at the time. Gone.

It was another year before the chameleon turned on me again, and resurfaced. Its resurrection was cause for celebration. Not dead, not gone!

I guess you know the rest of the story if you’ve ever grown an invasive: It behaved for a moment or two, charming me thoroughly as if my latest gem, then proceeded to get thuggish (and lose its variegation, reverting to the stronger-willed green version).

Oh, no, I said, not on your life, as it overran pulmonarias and Hylomecon, goldenseal and trilliums at a gallop. Oh, no you don’t. Out came the fork and shovel, and after the seeming bulk was uprooted and sent to the trash, out came the sheets of heavy black plastic, weighted down with stones all summer long, as I tried to bake the remainder to death (called tarping; with clear plastic, it would be called solarizing).

By springtime: not gone, and a year later (by then two years beneath black plastic), still not gone. Four years of this treatment has done nothing but encourage it to travel farther and farther sideways underground.

Even if I wanted to use the herbicide glyphosate to stop it, I could not in this situation: The Houttuynia was growing under a big magnolia with fleshy surface roots, which would have taken up the chemical, too.

I am repeatedly forking out everything beneath there now, bagging and trashing it for fear of spreading snippets of the chameleon’s roots, and even tried turning the area to lawn. Mowing for a decade or so will probably kill whatever re-sprouts, right? Or not. I went back to plastic as of 2015, and dig it twice a year besides, but …

And so I ask you again: Why won’t this plant die? (Oh, and any botched murder attempts to confess?)

  1. Harriet Wetstone says:

    I, too, was seduced by the chameleon plant, and put it into my shady woodland garden where is is galloping off, now in its third year, and now to places where it is not welcome. I had had it in a sunny perennial bed where it duked it out with spanish bells such that both were behaving and providing tight cover, interesting texture, and color. Mine is still really pretty, but I would love to be able to stop it!!

  2. Suzie Messer says:

    After forty years in San Diego, on one spring morning, I finally found 2 pots of Dokudami (houttuynia cordate). I planted one to the ground and left one in the pot in the full sun. Both stayed beautiful for a while, the one in the ground even started to crawl. I talked to them, watered them, fertilized them, and thanked them. After a half year, both have been shriveled and dead. I apologize to them.

  3. claire wallick says:

    My husband and I bought a property ( pa zone 6b) with a healthy bed of Houttuynia. I have been actively trying to “kill” it for 4 years now. It is relentless, stealthy and opportunistic. I have made progress, but feel I may spend the next 20 years on patrol.

  4. Mari-Louise Collet says:

    Yes yes why do they even sell it in the garden centre :( It should come with a warning. I gave some to an admiring friend before I realised the error. She is now also trying to kill it.
    Other enemies in my Irish Garden ? crow garlic taken from a hedgerow somewhere and now trying to spread…. Soapwort pretty but again so invasive.

    Good luck

  5. Dorothy Geyer says:

    Margaret I feel your pain about houttuynia not showed up last year in my zone 7a yard and I kept because it was so pretty. Then I identified it and even those few plant I pulled out did not stop this plant. I have been warned and can add this to my never ending weed pulling efforts with microstrgium!

  6. Sarah says:

    This is spreading across multiple flowerbeds in my yard. Just read all the comments and planning to embark on removal this week.
    So far I’ve only cut it down with a weedeater and a few weeks later it’s back full force, only slightly shorter.
    It’s growing around trees that I don’t want to damage.
    There’s poison ivy mixed in to get rid of as well. I’ve heard vinegar and dawn can work on the poison ivy. Think it could work on the Houttuynia cordata as well, or do I need to risk the trees and go ahead with round up or some other weed killer?
    Planning to put down cardboard or landscape fabric, mulch, and an outdoor rug with furniture afterwards.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sarah. The “vinegar” sold as herbicide is actually very concentrated acetic acid solution, and not intended for use on tough characters like poinson ivy (which is actually a woody vine as it matures) or the tenacious Houttuynia, but for just-emerged little tender things that might pop up in the sidewalk cracks or in your driveway. Details on that and herbicide use in general. Even with those just-emerged young weeds, you must use serous protection with acetic acid (goggles, gloves, mask…) when applying it. Culinary vinegar won’t kill much of anything. I don’t have an answer on how to get rid of Houttuynia.

    2. Kathy says:

      There is no getting rid of it! I paid good money to Nursery that did a landscape design for me about 15 years ago After about four years, I called the main office and complained so loud and so much that they sent a crew out, dug it all up, put down new topsoil and new mulch, and sprayed herbicide! It was back the next year! I called and complained again! Again, they sent a crew out, free of charge, and did the same stuff. One member of the crew said to me… You realize, you are never getting rid of this! And I have not! Multiple times it has sprung up in my flower bed, and I have used round up on it. The one spot disappears, but then it reappears in another spot! Just recently, I discovered under my rosebushes about 10 or 12 plants of this, which have grown about 6 to 8 inches tall! Again, I have used round up! The round up will probably kill everything surrounding it, but that stuff I am sure will return!

    3. Nancy Steinman says:

      The Chameleon has become my worst nightmare in my gardening life. No matter how many times I dig out gus one bed that after serious eradication throughout much of my property it appeared again after several years. I’m about to give up. since it has now has spread through my grass and it is everywhere. I keep digging out that one bed though and now another that it spread to hoping I can control it to a degree but it truly feels like insanity. If roundup would actually work, which I have never used in my life, I would use it. That’s how crazy it’s making me. What’s even worse is when I see it being sold in the nurseries for both gardens and ponds. I just about lose my mind!

      Thanks for your article. At least within this insanity there are others that I can commiserate with and visa versa.

  7. BR says:

    Plant some native Asarum canadense in the area where the devil plant is growing and give it time, working well in my garden.

  8. tab says:

    This plant is good for detoxing heavy metals, radiation, snake venom, poison and bacteria from your body. It saved many lives in Japan.

  9. MLee says:

    As with other invasive, this was self-inflicted. I admired it lining the path at my doc’s (without appreciating that it was contained within pavement, concrete, and brick). Started it and my yard and now it’s pooling out, strangling my hibiscus, hydrangea, etc. ‘The Blob’ in plant form.

  10. Carolyn Roof says:

    Not glad that you can’t get rid of houttunia cordata, but it does make me feel better as I cannot overcome ‘hoot-ten-natty’ even after finely sifting the soil. Next ry, dig out the beg and paint-roller treat with 45-70% vinegar.

  11. Richard William Haynes says:

    Like many here, I thought the small tri-colored pot of houttuynia cordata would look great around my small pond in the back yard 25 years ago. The first Winter I figured it either died or went dormant. The following Spring it struggled but put out a few leaves. Year 3 it popped up 5′ in every direction…..and some had reverted to all green and grew not 4″ but over 12″. I guess because it flowers and sets seeds it began popping up in my seedling beds. ( I hybridize daylilies as a hobby). Each year I would empty out a bed of unwanted seedlings to make room for the next crop..those seedlings I wanted to work with I transferred to an evaluation bed.. Each time I moved a daylily – guess what went with it to the new bed? The last two years the houttuynia grew so high many daylily scapes were hidden…the daylily foliage was blocked from sunlight and grew sparse resulting in poor bloom or no bloom at all. I’ve pulled, injected roundup -for stumps, painted the leaves..sure it kills the foliage above ground but within 3 weeks its back thicker than ever. The lateral roots look like spaghetti growing sideways ready to replace any leaves above ground…..I’ve measured the roots growing sideways as deep as 18″. I’ve poisoned, tarped, solarized, dug, burned and tilled (NEVER TILL…EVERY LITTLE PIECE grows into a new plant.). I’m 76 now…I pretty sure it will be here long after I’m dust. Meanwhile…I know I’ll always have reason to exercise awaiting me every Summer as long as I can get back off the ground.

  12. Christina says:

    I have been battling fish mint for 20 years now on my property. Also tried everything, from chemical, pulling, landscape fabric etc. But as others have said, the moment you cut the tiniest hole into the landscape fabric to plant something else, the fish mint will emerge out of that hole, even years later. So I keep it at bay on my property by digging it out with as many roots as possible wherever it comes up, sometimes I use a 40% vinegar spray if I am too lazy to pull. The vinegar is not much less effective than glycosphate-containing spray, I have found, but it is definitely much better for the environment.
    But here comes my surprising potential cure, which I discovered by mere accident. My neighbor’s property is rented to students, so they don’t care about their front yard. Thus, the fish mint was going rampant there. I don’t remember what initially prompted me to spread clover seeds there; I just wanted their unkempt front yard to be at least bee-friendly. And the following year, when the white clover returned immediately in spring and took over everything, I immediately noted that the fish mint had notably decreased. This is now the third year, and even my neighbor’s garden is as unkept as before; the fish mint is only in areas where the clover seeds did not take [ like under bushes and a straggler here and there]. The regular white clover seeds work the best, not the mini or micro type. I think that is because the regular type clover takes away the light immediately because it comes up so early [ and looks pretty]. And maybe also something to do with all the nitrogen clover is supposed to put back into the soil. This year, I also spread the high-growing prairie clover in between, and it looks so pretty.

    1. Ilene says:

      I have been battling this nightmare for 35 years! Also from a single plant to now a half-acre patch, even though I’ve been trying to kill it for more than three decades: flame torching, glycosphate (which I hate to use), tarping, hand pulling. At this writing I will attempt to flame torch it once more, cover it with overlapping cardboard covered with woodchips, and edge it with metal sheeting 8 inches into the ground so it doesn’t send its vicious underground runners. But I feel that all my attempts at eradication only serve to propagate this invasive.

      I will try the white clover, thanks for the tip.

  13. Jay P. Edwards says:

    Initially planted this in a bog garden next to my pond. It did not thrive and eventually disappeared. Unfortunately, I was seduced by its foliage, so I got some more and planted it in a flower bed about 4 feet away from my vegetable garden which is raised beds three feet deep. Within two years this horror was growing up through the raised beds! Short of having a backhoe remove all soil down three feet and entirely removing moving my raised beds I see no way to get rid of it. If they take this to Mars I’m sure it would take over in no time.

  14. Michael says:

    “Even if I wanted to use the herbicide glyphosate to stop it” Your possible only alternative to eradicating this plant might be glyposhate, by getting some zip close sandwich bags(or whtever size you choose) and then adding a concentrate of whatever type/brand of herbicide into the bags. After which you would stuff as much of the plant into the bag and zip them closed as much as possible. This draws the herbicide directly into the plant to the roots which is the main core of the problem

  15. Robert says:

    I enjoy this with Chinese foods often. The roots def resemble mint which is another one that replicates from whatever tiny little bit is leftover in the garden. I warn all my new gardener friends to only plant mint in pots. Look this one up for culinary uses… if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em!!

  16. Linda says:

    It’s a great plant. Beautiful leaves, light and airy, with pretty flowers and a wonderful citrusy scent. That said, the best place to plant it is in a physically contained area or hardscape. I’m in zone 9b in southern CA. I plant mine on the Northside of my yard, in the shade of my home, along with stephanotis and hydrangeas. The area is a rectangular bed with hardscape cement sidewalk on three sides and the fourth side being the house wall. Have never had a problem with it jumping into any part of the garden. It dies back in winter and appears again in spring. Right plant, right place.

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