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!

  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.

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