Medieval monks cultivated ground elder as a medicinal plant, but it later earned a reputation of a nuisance weed thanks to its rapid growth. Is there any redemption for this once useful wild edible?
The plant forms a creeping, pale green carpet across the ground. The oval-shaped leaves are long, hairless and toothed, and arranged in groups of three at the end of leaf stems. The small flowers appear in clusters turning from light-pink to white as they mature. The wind-pollinated seeds are flat vessels that develop from the mature flower heads.
Native to Europe, Asia, introduced to Britain in the Middle Ages; later introduced to North America.
Habitat and distribution
Often found growing in shrubberies, hedges, orchards, gardens, woodlands, roadsides, wasteground, banks, and alongside rivers and streams.
Parts used for food
This perennial plant flowers from June to August, but best picked in spring, and again in early autumn.
Food uses of ground elder
In the Middle Ages, the plant was a potherb. In the markets of Medieval Cracow, Poland, it was sold as a wild vegetable.
In Sweden and Switzerland, the plant was collected for spring salads or also cooked as a wild leafy vegetable.
In Anglo-Saxon Britain, ground elder was used to clarify beers and may have been called ‘gill’ from the French guiller, meaning ‘to ferment beer’.
In parts of the Ukraine, it is still used as an ingredient of green borsh, a soup made of green vegetables.
Ground elder recipes
- Ground elder and chicken patties
- Ground elder quiche
- Ground elder gazpacho soup
- Stir-fried ground elder and tempeh
Nutritional profile of ground elder
The young leaves contain high amounts of vitamin C and are best picked in spring for use in salads and soups.
Herbal medicine uses of ground elder
The plant was once used as medicine for various ailments, but its primary purpose was as a cure for gout and to relieve pain and swelling. For this reason, the plant was also known as goutwort.
Modern herbals still recommend ground elder as a treatment for gout, sciatica, rheumatism, haemorrhoids, inflammation, and water retention.
While we make little use of of it as a food plant today, it is sometimes used as fodder for pigs and is so-called pigweed.
There is little information on its side effects. Seek medical advice before use in pregnancy, when breastfeeding or for specific medical conditions.
Grieve, M. M. (1998) A modern herbal. London: Tiger Books International.
Hatfield, G. (2008) Hatfield’s herbal: the secret history of British plants. London: Penguin.
Richard Le Strange (1977) A history of herbal plants. London: Angus and Robertson.
Sturtevant, E. L. (1919) Sturtevant’s notes on edible plants. Albany: J. B. Lyon.
Turner, N. J. et al. (2011) Edible and tended wild plants, traditional ecological knowledge and agroecology. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. [Online] 30 (1–2), 198–225.