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. Debra D Hughes says:

    I have been insanely neurotic about this nemesis of my entire property; and it’s reach into a neighbor’s property and across the street from my property. BTW it grows in full sun just as well as shade. I dig, pull and destroy as much as possible without chemicals or boiling water. It is useless. I’ve been at it for 20 years since I started my pond.

    1. lisa vought says:

      I just spent yet another Memorial Day WE attempting to massacre this plant. It is reaching further and further into my flower bed. I will win or die trying. (Have a feeling long after I’m dead it will still persist. ;)

    2. Kim Scott says:

      Find an herbalist in your area to sell the plant to. It’s used in herbal medicine as a potent antiviral. But it must be fresh. It isn’t as effective dried.

  2. Pat Ferd says:

    We had such a rainy winter and spring in N.J that my Chameleon plants were
    constantly under water. We are approaching June and there is no indication that they will make an appearance this year.
    Do you think that they will ever return, or was l lucky enough that they were killed off by root rot?

    1. margaret says:

      I’d say you got lucky b/c this is a very invasive plant that most of us are trying desperately to eradicate with no success! Best not to let this loose in the garden or nature.

  3. Sue says:

    I have tried to kill this plant for 5+ years…used straight round up, (not diluted) to no avail.

    So, now I embrace it. Thankfully it is contained around my fountain insulated in concrete all around it. It devoured everything I had planted besides it.

    Good luck!

    1. Donna Lab says:

      This plant should be illegal. I still have flowers to plant, but I have been digging out the chameleon vine for weeks. I have filled carpenter bags to the brim with the roots; they are taken to a landfill. Years ago we used Roundup, and now I refuse to use it as it kills people and not this plant. It is now growing under my gazebo. I might need a bulldozer and have the top 2′ of soil removed and new soil brought in. Any solutions? This little plant was “gifted” to me years ago; how little I knew. Some gift. :(

      1. Cynthia McGee says:

        I was told it is the plant from Hell when I asked the local garden shop about how to eradicate it from my yard. I was told one man used a blow torch on the dirt after he cleared what he thought was all of it and it still came back! It should be outlawed!!!!!!!
        Pretty but evil for sure!

        1. jeanne l says:

          I agree it should be illegal! I planted one tiny little sprig I got on clearance for 17 cents, half dead…
          and now it has taken over my entire back slope (my house is built on a steep hill, with a retaining wall that backs onto a wooded wild area ravine). It is coming out of my patio bricks, it is spreading roots through the retaining wall, it is encroaching into the wild area, it is taking over the grass. My hopes for creating a terraced garden behind the retaining wall are all for naught, as I’ve been fighting this plant for about 6 years now. And it stinks. I can always tell I’ve pulled a spring of it by the stench. All I guess I can hope at this point is to keep it from spreading all the way to the front yard before we retire & sell this place to downsize.

      2. Thomas says:

        I had a customer call me to get rid of a badly amount which had spread from a dozen 2″ pots to cover a few thousand square feet (I should say cubic, as roots had spread to over 4 feet in depth in some areas) in a mere 2 1/2 seasons. it took considerable work in all seasons for 3 1/2 years plus at a cost to customer of neighborhood of $90,000. for $8 they spent for fall sale plants by a very well known and licensed “garden center”, people who’s extent of horticultural knowledge was at best “green side up”. Well, it appeared perhaps in control, i suggested judicious continued monitoring, “No thanks, we got it, our regular lawn & garden maintenance can take care of it from here”… mind you these were couple acre multi million dollar properties, in prestigious neighborhood, within < mile of major east coast city line, in early 1990's. I recently returned and checked the property and contiguous areas, sickeningly sad , just a conservative rough guestimate, it has since infested several acres ,maybe more, of prime private and public property. I'm very suspicious that it may be able to self propagate on a cellular level !! controlled tests performed at the time I was able to produce extremely! vigorous plant from fingernail clipping sized piece of root rhizome, in neglected pot. Subsequently tested various methods to kill, sterilize, prevent any and all regrowth, all failed, except spreading all plant parts, soil and pot on steel pan for one hour in cremation oven, … I hope …..

    2. Stina says:

      At least it’s beautiful! Lol. I just ID’d this after seeing up popping up around my house. Some variegated, most not. Glad mine is also (hopefully) contained.

      1. jeanne l says:

        It’s not beautiful for long. The variegated color goes fast, never returns. It’s just very tall – way too tall for a “ground cover”, reaching 2-3 feet. All green green green.
        I suggest ridding yourself of it if at all possible (which I doubt)

    3. Jon says:

      Straight roundup is actually less effective than properly diluted. Straight just burns the tips, diluted actually has a chance to be taken into the entire plant and kill it from within.

      1. Linda Costello says:

        Great info. I have also been told it is best to use glyphosate in late summer and early Fall when the plants are in transition. They will be most effectively treated.

  4. Liz says:

    As it turns out, our pot bellied pigs absolutely love to eat this plant roots and all. It is edible and I read it is used in some Asian dishes and is called fish mint. I had been checking to make sure it wasn’t toxic for them and look at that, it’s not. The piggies have turned the soil over and over and eradicated it root and all in areas where we have designated for them. Nothing I ever tried worked but they have stopped it’s rampant growth in the area where it had taken over. I can tolerate what is left and now I pull pieces to give to them. Of course all other plants in the vicinity are subject to destruction from the highly efficient snout tilling and snacking.

      1. Lynna says:

        Goats simply eat the plant and don’t disturb the roots. Unfortunately, goats won’t kill it. Pigs dig and eat the roots and the plant. We had an area beneath some locust trees that was compacted and had been for literally decades. You couldn’t even get a shovel into it. We penned our pigs in this area, and they did a tremendous job of tilling the soil! It was loose for a depth of 2 feet!

    1. Hi Liz,
      I volunteer for a non-profit group called Blue Ridge PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) here in Virginia and I would love to use photo of your pot belly pigs eating the Houttuynia to show in our presentations about “biological control” of invasive plants. Do you have any? Would you agree to let us using it in our workshops?

      1. Dawn says:

        William, we live in MD and have 2 large patches of chameleon on our property. We have tried to get rid of it several times over several years. Is there an agency such as yours in MD that may be able to help?

  5. john fisher says:

    i would try painting the underside of a few leaves with a concentrated roundup solution with a spreader sticker or liquid soap added

  6. Joyce says:

    I purchased this about 15 years ago. Big mistake. Three years ago I buried it in pure leaf mulch, about 5 inches thick. You are right, above. It grew sideways and penetrated other parts of the garden. NOW I am using agricultural vinegar, 30%, on it, which is lethal on most growth and stings your skin! Wish me luck!

        1. Michele says:

          It is taking over my yard too!!!! This is crazy! Mine is growing around my Gazebo and strangling all other plants! I keep pulling it out but this summer with all the rain it has spread everywhere!! It has also somehow gotten over to my side yard planting area and taking over there… They aren’t even connected! I don’t even recall ever planting this plant! Please update if you find solution!!

      1. margaret says:

        I shudder every time I see acetic acid (“horticultural vinegar”) in the big bottles at the garden center. “Vinegar” sounds so tame, and it is not. Explained here.

  7. Blondie says:

    I have been trying to get rid of this hideous plant for 20 years,. I have to keep at it every year but last year was busy inside with another project and it has taken over, I’m going to dig up the soil and get rid of it once and for all. That probably won’t work either.

    1. Jane Steranko says:

      It stinks. I would not bring it inside. I am doing my third round of trying to get rid of this plant from hell. It has grown underneath my 2′ x 2′ pavers, 90 pounds each popping up between the pavers. It has escaped out of it’s barrier, my house, pavers and concrete stairs. It is mixed in with a few weeds and lots of pachysandra. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two rhizomes. I have noticed very few worms or bugs in the soil. I bet the chameleon plant must excrete some type of toxin. This plant needs to be studied.

  8. Sharon Miller says:

    I too was stucked in by the pretty leaves and white flowers. I purchased a small pot of this and it seemed to remain contained for about 4-5 years. THEN, last year before I knew what was happening, this spread across my garden and choked out a bunch of my regualar plantings. A plan for 2019 Spring: I was determined to get rid of this INVASIVE SPECIES. I thought I had almost all of it. I used and giant sieve shoveled out mounds of dirt to pull out the tiny roots and collected 1/2 a large garbage can full by hand. I was away for 2 weeks….its insideous roots traveled under established plantings and have come up right inside them. You can never follow the roots fully as they break off when you pull them. I had another go at dozen outbreaks yesterday…especially the ones traveling into my lawn and welcome any suggestions to help eradicate this horrible plant. Now my garden has a moon surface effect…craters everywhere. My husband thinks I’m crazy and obsessed – I confess that am, I can’t let this ivy win. HELP!

    1. Michele says:

      Unfortunately, after many attempts to starting digging this out, it totally got out of control in two areas of my yard! I have had to resort to a landscapers help! I’m on a break from 5 1/2 hours of pulling pieces of roots out… I could probably continue for weeks. They are working on other area now and he has said he hate to use chemicals but that is the only way with this plant to perhaps kill the remains in the soil! The area we worked on all those hours on was about 70 square feet ! I’m praying it won’t all grow back!!! Good luck!

  9. Kelsi says:

    Oh this evil hate-weed is the bane of my existence. It was here when I bought the house. It’s killing everything near it, and it smells terrible when I touch it. I can’t use chemicals because it’s planted over our friggin well. I’ve been putting low splash bleach into a garden sprayer and it kills the plant above ground, but doesn’t touch the roots, and doesn’t seem to mind growing in soil that was soaked in bleach!
    I’m ready to just pave the yard.

  10. Beth Jenkins says:

    Oh wow, I am shocked about what I am reading about this plant!!! I have had it maybe 10 years and it is not a problem
    ( knock on wood)!!!! I even planted a piece of it elsewhere in my yard!! I like the colors and the smell of it!! So shocked!!!!
    I must add…I have PLENTY of invasive plants that I work to get rid of!!! I sure hope me writing this doesn’t change things!! LOL

  11. Julie says:

    Now I’m terrified. I am buying a house and it has a bunch of invasive plantings. This was one I was unfamiliar with and a google search brought me here. It looks like I have a battle on my hands.

  12. Corny says:

    We, too have been battling this very aggressive invasive plant for 5 years. You cannot “pull” it out, the stems are segmented and they just break off and two more replace it! My husband tried digging it out – it just hiccupped for a few months and then took off again! What has worked for me so far is: I cut one stem just below a segmented joint and immediately use a small brush paint the remaining stalk/stem with full-strength Poison Ivy Killer. (It must be just after you cut it – the plant seals off the cut very quickly and the liquid cannot penetrate the seal.) Yes, I hate using chemicals around my other plants, but this is war between this invasive plant choking out my desired flowers or killing it! (Use gloves as you handle the liquid container. I pour the liquid into a small jar with a lid, label it and carry it around with the brush. Always wash your hands after removing the gloves.) If the Poison Ivy Killer doesn’t work (it doesn’t kill grass), I then resort to using Round-Up in the same manner, (it kills every plant). YOU MUST BE VIGILANT WITH THIS WEED. I think I have reduced it by half from year to year, but I am checking for it in the spring as well as the fall. And, yes it has killed some of my cherished flowers and it has gone underground into my neighbor’s garden.
    Sometimes this plant “hangs onto” other plants that a friend or neighbor digs up to share with you. I no longer buy any plants from the Garden Center that carried this plant in the first place! Good Luck with your battle against it!

  13. Lynne Russillo says:

    This is a phenomenal plant for health. Harvest it after the flowers fall off. Use it as a pot herb, dry it and use it as tea. It is used in Asia to treat many things, including cancer. A powerful antioxidant, also used to treat Lyme disease.

    1. Justin says:

      No thanks. I don’t like my tea to taste like a combination of fish and mint. There is no empirical evidence that this noxious plant is useful for curing any ailment. If heaven forbid I get Lyme disease or something worse, I’ll make an appointment with my family doctor thank you very much.

      I have an infestation that came with my house planted by idiots who covered their garden with this crap and the equally invasive gout weed. I had someone dig out the roots and it was at bay for a year or two, but it was never completely gone. This year in April, I had a landscaping company use a weed mat and cover it with mulch. I go out two or three times a day and pull out anything that I see coming through the mulch or around the edges of the border. Nothing here on the surface of the planet can live without sunlight that it must use to make its own food. I take great delight in knowing I’m starving it slowly. When I pull it , the nasty little stalks are white/yellow and sickly looking. Never shall I plant anything in that former garden space, and every year I will continue to cover it with wed mat and mulch ….an unmarked grave for a most vile criminal.

  14. Kris says:

    I am not alone! I, too, have been battling this evil weed for 25 years! My neighbor unknowingly offered me this “cute” chameleon plant as I was just starting a new flower bed. 25 years later my entire family spends time carefully ripping out this foul-smelling plant whenever they spot it. Last year I was redoing the flower bed and dug up as many roots as I could, knowing I would probably still be digging it up this year. I’ve been spraying vinegar on random weeds that pop up between the cracks of my walkway and it has worked well – not so much on the chameleon plant – some of the leaves turn a little brown and that’s it. I’ll just take some solace in knowing others are going through the same thing I am. Maybe I’ll take the advice of another commenter and find an herbalist who could use it.

  15. Bruce Martin says:

    I’ve been trying to remove this horrible plant for years. After using concentrated glyphosate last year–and killing very little chameleon but lots of my favorite plants–I tried burying it in mulch. No luck. I’ve now settled on a more satisfying solution. We live in a wooded area and unless we rake regularly, the fallen leaves will eventually suffocate the grass. Voila! I’m now covering the chameleon with blankets of leaves, then soaking them to create a thick, dense mat. It still is difficult to kill it, but the satisfaction of “blotting out” its presence without using chemicals, and relief from the smell, makes it a satisfying…thing to try. Of course, I can’t grow anything else there, but better to have nothing than this stuff.

  16. mary says:

    Thank you all! I just discovered this growing up with my wisteria on the pergola post and i.d.’d it on plantsnap app. It must’ve come in the pot 3 years ago and is now appearing…now off to dig!!! Truly appreciate these comments.

  17. wallace w morse says:

    Here it is April 2020 and its still alive after 10 years of battle. Done all of the above and it has come back with a vengeance. I am trying the Bayer product that kills vines, bushes, poison ivy…I think it actually likes the Roundup I have tried to kill it with. Wish me luck

    1. Ashley says:

      I used that last fall. I cut it back to about 3 inches high with clippers, black bagged the tops, then sprayed the open ends with the recommended dilution of vines, bushes and poison ivy round up. A huge swath of the plant seems to be dormant. I say dormant because my hubby, in his infinite wisdom, tilled a section of the garden, and now it is popping up in that loose soil.

      Seriously thinking of screwing with the PH of that section of soil to see if it kills it.

  18. Gary A Young says:

    What if you dug up some roots, and placed them in a jar of round up? Would it be taken up by the roots to other parts of the plant or just kill that portion.?

  19. Barb says:

    At least these comments have helped to soothe my aching back. I have laughed and identified with all these attempts to eradicate this insidious plant. My husband and I spent 7 hours today digging an area 8′ x 15′. We dug with a pitchfork down 2 ‘ where there were no more roots. We’ll see.
    At least we’re planting grass seed here now, and if it spikes its stinky head, it can be mowed. Is it possible it will overtake the grass?
    My only consolation is to learn it has some medicinal use. Antiviral? Wonder if it would work to prevent CoVid19? Now, that’s a thought.

  20. Molly says:

    Same Same Same! The battle is real. My Mom gave me a split hosta from her garden for my garden 15 yrs ago and said she put in a little surprise. Oh she is still laughing! I curse the day! Local Master Gardener said to embrace the little devil. If I did, what would I yell at in my perenial garden. My neighbors would wonder where I was?! My husband could actually approach me without my screaming about this Chameleon. #unembraseable

  21. Sharon Miller says:

    Houttuynia cordata! Step by step, inch by inch, spade by spade slowly I search! After a major dig in Spring 2019, and a sad moon scaped garden last year, I have been vigilant in finding every new shoot and digging out as much as can. In the words of my expert gardening brother-in-law, you deprive it of sun it will eventually die. I must say there has been much less, but I look almost every day under bushes, through my lilies, along the edges of my garden to be sure nothing escapes. I do find new shoots every time I look but then they are promptly removed. I look forward to the day there are none. Still obsessed….but happy again with my garden.

  22. Kathie M. McDonald-McClure says:

    After another perennial spring battle today digging up this obnoxiously invasive plant, I checked a few articles I had saved a few years ago (including this one) hoping to find update on an effective eradication method. Well, at least I see I’m in good company looking to win this battle. The Wikipedia entry on this plant shows what I consider to be a horrifying picture of this plant’s stalks served up on a platter — the picture might require a Warning for those of us who battle this plant and afterwards, are left with the smell of it even after a good shower!

    Regarding the plant’s medicinal value, I thought the COVID19 cure comment was funny and was going to suggests that the scientists pit the DNA of Houttuynia against SARS-CoV-2 in a Petri dish to see who wins. Here’s the shocker – the Chinese appear to have already tried to use it against “SARS”!

    Anyway, I’ll keep checking back here in hopes of seeing that someone has successfully eradicated Houttuynia from their otherwise lovely garden, and generally for emotional support in the battle against this plant. :-)

  23. JIm says:

    Well I will tell you all Thank You. I just bought two of these plants because they looked charming. The information on the plastic tag provide planting instructions but no “warnings.” I’m going to wrap them and place in the garbage and send them to the incinerator. Again thank you for saving me years of backbreaking heartache.

  24. Steff LaFlash says:

    Oh, my… had I known then what I know now, I would’ve run screaming into the hills away from this dreadful plant. About 15 years ago is when I planted it and for the last 13 years, I’ve been trying to get rid of it. Spring and fall, and all through the summer it’s dig, dig, dig…and STILL, it comes back. Well, I’m going to attempt to inject roundup into the crown of the evil entity with a meat injector. That’s how I got rid of the “clumping bamboo” that actually ran amok through my gardens. That only cost me 2 years of my life and a lasting disdain for the gardening catalog that sold running bamboo under false pretenses. Well friends…it’s back outside to attempt to destroy this nauseatingly stinky plant…

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