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Shady invaders - few-flowered garlic and ground elder

I donated my shady, overgrown back garden to the birds many years ago while I dedicated most of my spare time to writing. It has taken a pandemic to get me back out there in an effort to grow some food under the dry shade of my magnificent European lime tree (Tilia x europaea). My main mission, or so I thought, was to reclaim the borders from the sea of ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria).

It won’t be the first time I’ve waged war on ground elder and I’ve cleared this garden once before but, when I made the decision to gift my garden to wildlife, I was quite happy to give it back to ground elder. Like the other members of its plant family, Apiaceae, ground elder produces umbrella-shaped white flowers (umbels) which attract all manner of insects. These insects, in turn, are welcome food for my precious birds.

Ground elder is edible but I have to confess, I’ve never tried it. Apparently, you should only eat the young leaves as the older leaves tend to be a bit bitter and can have a laxative effect. It spreads by underground rhizomes – white root-like stems that produce new plants at every opportunity. If you leave just a small piece of the rhizome behind, the ground elder will grow again. I don’t really mind it. My seaside garden is very sandy so it’s relatively easy to pull it up and uniquely satisfying.

But ground elder is least of my worries. Without me even noticing, a new invader has taken hold. All the way from the mountains of Western Asia, few-flowered garlic (Allium paradoxum) is quite an unassuming little plant on its own but, as a colony, it is capable of overpowering even ground elder. Not being familiar with it, I had to trawl the internet to get a positive identification and, by all accounts, it’s a real struggle to get rid of it. It, too, is edible and has a mild oniony taste. However, like members of the Allium genus, it is toxic to both dogs and cats. Since I have one of each, the few-flowered garlic will have to go or, at least, I should reduce it to manageable numbers.

I will have to work fast. Few-flowered garlic spreads mainly from little bulbils it produces in the flower heads and, once these drop to the ground, you can expect more plants in the future. There are some horror stories online about the invasive nature of this little plant and, it seems, I may have to keep digging it up for years to come.

Since I am aiming to produce as much food as I can in the inhospitable environment of dry, sandy shade, I’d be a fool to even try to completely eradicate both of my edible weeds. Such is the highly invasive nature of few-flowered garlic, it is an offence to plant it in the wild but I already have it so I’ll just be looking to keep it under control. Now that we’re at the end of April, my few-flowered garlic is getting to the stage where it will be past its best so my plan is to dig it all up this year and treat the plants that escape my cull as an early spring crop next year. As far as the ground elder goes, digging it up will encourage a new crop of fresh, young shoots from the rhizomes I will inevitably miss. The young shoots are the ones I can eat without fear of having to visit the toilet more often than I would like.

If you want to eat your own ground elder, here’s a great article:

And, for few-flowered garlic:


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