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’m back to plastic as of 2015, and counting.

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

  1. Juanita Haynes says:

    If I covered the garden with black plastic for a year would it kill the plant and roots?
    I thought about layers of newspaper, cover with black plastic and weighing it down with pavers. Fortunately since it is up again send the house in a raised bed it has only taken over that 12 x 4 area. I can go a year or two without the bed since it only grows this weed now anyway.

    1. margaret says:

      I did try both things to no avail here. Clear plastic will get hottest — to possibly really solarize it to death, versus black plastic or paper mulch. Like this. That’s what I will try next I think: clear plastic in summer sun for the whole summer.

    2. Anna says:

      After a few years trying first to pull, then dig out roots that spanned many feet down, was totally impossible without a backhoe. I have now covered the entire area with black plastic in early spring before any of the perennials came up. I tried to save some bulbs in the ground before I covered it. It’s about 100 square feet. I think I contained it from speading by putting a trench and metal barrier in the ground. I check it every day for new sprouts and dig them out and apply roundup to the root. Only found a few though. I’m planning to keep it covered for the whole summer and maybe next as well! I’m praying it works

      1. kate says:

        Also dealing with this nightmare. How do you apply roundup to the root? Do you break the leaf off and spray it on the root? Is it better to get as far down as possible to the root and apply it there?

    3. Elizabeth says:

      How to eradicate houttuynia cordata (chameleon plant)

      What I did when Houttuynia cordata took over my garden beds. I was one of those unsuspecting persons who thought this was a lovely groundcover and brought a couple home. For a couple of years due to my job, I did not have much time as I would have liked to tend my garden. I did not know what this plant was going to do. When it was in bloom, the little white flowers seemed to add a sparkle to my landscaping. And then it happened. The penalty I paid for admiring this plant and letting it spread was that my beds ended up completely smothered and taken over by this plant. In my yard, the chameleon plant behaved like fairy sized kudzu. In July 2019 I began researching online and was thrown into a panic. The prospects did not look good for getting rid of it. I found out this plant is on the list of globally invasive problem plants. I was stressed. I am going to tell you what I did after reading everything I could uncover on the internet about trying to get rid of this plant.
      I have never knowingly put any chemicals in my yard. I do not like them and I do not want to harm any wildlife or the ecosystem. However, in this instance, seeing how aggressive this plant was and having read that it can even spread under a driveway, I made a personal decision to use Ortho Poison Ivy Spray. It was not a decision made lightly. I did not want this plant taking over anymore of my property, spreading to my neighbors’ yards, or escaping into the wild areas where I live.
      From July to early September, I carefully applied the spray. The container it comes in has a very narrow stream, so I was able to be careful and not lose any plants I didn’t want to. After this application during the hottest months in Memphis, TN, the offending plant began to look dead. But from my research I knew it is a zombie that would return come Spring. My next step was sheet mulching. My beds needed to be re-done anyway, so in my case, I just dug up plants that I absolutely needed to save and moved them and with a few – like my Baptisia that have long taproots and can’t be transplanted, I worked around.
      1. In September my partner and I got a lot of cardboard. My source was behind stores like TJ Maxx. After they unpack clothing etc….they put all of the cardboard behind the retail establishments. The cardboard was clean. I removed any tape. I had purchased a large supply of landscape pins. I used the sheet mulching method. Heavy layer of cardboard, then wet it and had humus and triple milled hardwood mulch delivered and applied on top of the cardboard. The beds stayed like this until March when I began putting in new plants and shrubs.
      2. Spring 2020. A silver lining to Covid Times, I worked from home through the Spring. This enabled me (with the help of my partner) to re-do my front garden beds and tend them everyday. After planting all of my new plants and shrubs and mulching with pine straw I checked every morning for any reappearing houttuynia leaves. Whenever one sprouts up, I zap it with poison Ivy spray. Yes, there have been a few that have popped up. I still do not like using poison. I am still getting rid of the plant, but honestly, so far the reemergence has been very easy to handle. Mostly because I have checked it everyday. I know I will have to keep on this, but I feel like I have it under control. I just hope I can continue to be vigilant next Spring when I will be at work. Meanwhile, my new landscaping is settling in. I planted a lot of natives, and my garden is humming with pollinators. Don’t give up.

  2. Marianne says:

    I too bought this horrid invasive plant years ago. Chameleon plant seems to go deeper with every new sprout! I took a bag of it out recently but now see new sprouts heading to the new sod. The roots go so deep! I have seen it squeeze in between daylily leaves and iris rhizomes, any tiny spot will do. This stuff will outlive me I fear!!

  3. Amy says:

    Has anyone tried Tenacity herbicide on Chameleon plant? I just tried Tenacity (along with the sufficant and dye) on our front lawn, mostly for creeping charlie. Things are beginning to turn white, as they should do after spraying tenacity, including one ostrich fern sprig that I hit with the herbicide by mistake, but which also spreads by rhizome. There is a new sprig of chameleon plant that mysteriously sprouted up in the front yard, a long driveway away from the nearest patch I need to make some headway on killing. I seriously hate this plant. Anyway, the leaves are beginning to get wilty and a tad white from the Tenacity. I was thinking about doing my back yard lawn and adjacent patch of spreading chameleon plant. If anyone has tried this, I would love to know if there was any success. If I do try it I will let you know.

  4. Ron Schilb says:

    I too have put Chameleon plant in my yard. I wanted a ground cover and it was pretty and I liked the white flowers. However it began to spread so fast I thought it would take over my yard. I have tried a new herbicide that seems to be working: 2-4-D (Weed-B-Gone) and it seems to be killing the plant. It has only been 48 hrs., but it is definitely dying, whether it will kill the roots is another story. I literally began with two or three plants in quart containers! I now have an area that is 10 X 20 ft. This plant seems to like sunlight and does best in full sun. It can be kept at bay under shade especially if shade loving plants are planted as competition.

  5. Maggie says:

    I too have the invasive chameleon, given to me by a friend. UGH!!! I have read to use a sponge paint brush on the leaves with Roundup. I am wondering, as I dig out roots in my garden, could I put Roundup on the roots if I don’t touch any other roots?

  6. Dan Downey says:

    Thank you! I didn’t know what this was but I have been trying to kill it for at least 15 years, possibly more. I initially created raised beds with fabric bottoms for my vegetables. They’ve worked reasonably well but recently they’ve found the edge and grown outside the edge of the fabric. Some small plants have found the middle but because the soil is loose I am able to take out 8 inches of root. by hand. I just redid the area outside the walls of the plot and have found 2 inch clusters of 4 foot roots growing horizontally. In most cases they were growing in water saturated ground. You have to make sure you remove every piece or you will get multipliers everywhere. I’m sure there must be something in literature about how they are kept in check in their native environment in Asia, probably involves human and animal consumption pot bellied pigs

  7. Susan Reed says:

    My neighbour planted this thug and it soon spread to my garden, appearing all along the fence I share with her. I tried everything short of chemicals, but every year there was more. After a few years, I noticed that the only place where it wasn’t spreading was where I had an old clump of gooseneck loosestrife. So I dug up all of the houttuynia I could and planted gooseneck loisestrife all along that fence. That was about three years ago. The first year, I had a few appear, but there has been nothing since. The loosestrife has an extremely dense root system and this may keep them out. I’m sharing because this worked for me. Of course, I now have a tremendous amount of the loosestrife, but I keep it under control.

  8. Victoria Neely says:

    I too have that hated plant! I have tried everything to get rid of it! 5 years ago had guys totally dig it out and bam it was back again next spring! It has grown in areas it was not planted!! I hate this plant and want it gone!!

  9. Ann says:

    The first year I planted this, I loved it, so silly me transplanted some to a few other places in my yard. Six or seven years later, it is an endless battle. Now it even grows 15 feet from where I originally planted it on the other side of my driveway….did it really spread underneath my driveway?? Poison ivy killer will get rid of it, but unfortunately kills everything else in my flower beds. Sadly, I think we are stuck with it for all eternity.

  10. Jean Yates says:

    If anyone has found a way to get rid of this plant, (Houttuynia), PLEASE let me know.
    It must have a natural enemy in its native land…

    Is it possible that it could help with a coronavirus solution?


  11. Katharine Daline says:

    I have battled this plant for 15 years. Started with one in my flower garden and now it has consumed my entire rose garden which runs along the fence and is 30 feet long & 6 feet wide. I have completely dug up the soil twice and discarded it, but it returned from loose pieces I guess. No product I’ve tried has killed it. I’ve also dug trenches 4 feet deep and sunk thick plastic barriers in the ground & the plant just goes under the barrier. I’m now just trying to keep it confined to one area, but this year I noticed it traveled under a concrete over brick sidewalk and is emerging on the other side. The bane of my garden existence.

  12. Bob says:

    I have a mustly isolated terrace. There’s a small area that wraps around to the side yard though. I’m thinking this plant would spare me the major pain of lifting my mower above the stone wall that surrounds the majority of my Terrance to mow it every week. How deep do these roots go. Any recommendations on a barrier?

  13. Davia says:

    Well darn,, bought a house last summer, on a golf course with strata rules re nicely maintained landscaping… I didn’t know what these were, … now they are spreading over entire back yard and see bits popping up on side yards and even front yard so thinking it must have been here for years.. I’m doomed . wonder how long before it invades the neighbours yards ?? I’ve cut them back to the ground but sounds like that is a waste of time, might even make them stronger. .

  14. Rebecca says:

    Oh I’m partly happy that I am not alone fighting a war with this evil!
    We moved in to our home last year, our garden is huge but not looked after at all and the previous owners (certainly not green fingered) had planted this devil!

    Unbeknownst to me, we dug up all of their flowerbeds including the awful slate they threw in for good measure to start again. My partner removed the plant but didn’t listen when I said don’t turn the soil over we haven’t got it all!

    Without knowing his mistake I Began replanting the whole bed. Unfortunately this now sprouts up all over the place in between my new plants Aaaarrrrggggghhhhh!!
    I have been painfully digging out every sprout and it’s root day in day out!!

    I can not use any chemicals because of my wonderful and costly new plants, please can someone reassure me that it will stop… eventually if I continue to dig out each sprout I find?? This is the bane of my existence! I’m going to be doing this for 30 years, I can see it already!

    Absolutely awful plant! It never gives in!!

    1. Susan says:

      Due to chameleon plant infestation this past weekend we dug up and moved every plant that we wanted to keep in the polluted bed. Let’s hope we didn’t spread it — we tried to remove the soil on the good plants. We’ll do brush killer on the chameleon plant leaves now for Fall then again in the spring. I am researching now whether to apply it to roots too. We paid a landscaping team several hundred dollars to manually dig it out. It came back a month later. Since I planted one plant 15 years ago its roots are too deep to manually get all the little pieces, I’ll be a first time chemical weed killer user. But there doesn’t seem to be any other way to get rid of and stop it.

  15. John Kimberley says:

    Have you tried eating it?

    Houttuynia Chameleon is a colourful perennial. Height approximately 12″. Variegated leaves with red, yellow and green colouration. White flowers. Requires a moist situation. Can be grown in full sun or shade. Can be invasive and best grown in large pot. Tender young shoots may be eaten raw or cooked. Use in salads.

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