Last summer, I was approached by a very good customer to solve a problem at one of her commercial properties. It seems, over the years, attempts to have a colorful, durable plant survive being embedded within Belgian Block, concrete and surrounded by steel fencing had not gone as planned. Add to this equation that there is no irrigation and guard dogs overseeing the facility at night and you can begin to understand her problem. Large dogs, capable of keeping those unwanted at bay, all the while being playful and occasionally relieving themselves as needed. This was an exceptional set of circumstances.
Houttuynia, also known as fish mint, rainbow plant, chameleon plant, heart leaf, fish wort and Chinese lizard tail, Houttuynia cordata, is one of those love it or hate it plants! There really is no middle ground with this plant and people’s opinions of it are extreme. A rhizomatous perennial that typically grows 12-15 inches tall and spreads indefinitely and certainly vigorously if deliberate attempts to contain it are not managed. Capable of excelling in wet areas, our customers set of circumstances, again solidified my endorsement to use this plant. It seemed her neighbor’s runoff dumped directly into this particular part of her property, keeping the area constantly wet. Cordate, dark blue-green leaves edged with red are typical within the species. Houttuynia’s foliage is aromatic when bruised and again, this attribute is either admired or there is a strong abhorrence towards it. So much so that some refer to it as a pungent, diesel smell, I don’t get that. For me it’s more of a pungent citrus smell. Most academic teachings suggest that the greenish-white flower spikes are subtended by the showier petal like bracts, and I would agree. The flowers of Houttuynia appear in late spring/early summer.
Researching some of the nitty gritty for this article, I learned that the genus name honors Martin Houttuyn (1720-1794), a Dutch naturalist and physician. My favorite cultivar, and yes I do like this plant and don’t mind its bruised foliage smell, is ‘Chameleon’. ‘Chameleon’, incidentally, is synonymous with ‘Court Jester’, ‘Tricolor’, and ‘Variegata’. Green leaves, variegated with shades of red, pink, yellow and white, hold on to bright red stems. And while tolerant of shade, Houttuynia’s markings look better in full sun to part shade. And with no serious insect or disease problems, why would anyone not like this plant?
Well… in a word, Invasive! It has been suggested that the best cultural practices to contain Houttuynia is to place it in a restricted root zone area. Areas bounded by sidewalk and Belgian Block are best, sound familiar? Underground spreading rhizomes are hard to get rid of and it smiles back at many herbicide attempts. Houttuynia is “hardy” in zones 5-8 and is native to Japan, Asia and the Himalayas.
Commonly grown as a leaf vegetable and used as a fresh herbal garnish in China and Vietnam, its nickname “fish mint” describes its unusual ‘fishy’ taste. India uses components of Houttuynia in salads and to dress up cooked vegetables, they call it ja myrdoh. Additionally, India grinds the tender shoots into chutneys, chilies and tamarind. Traditional Chinese medicine has worked with Houttuynia to try and treat SARS and various other disorders. Japan and Korea use the dried leaves of Houttuynia as a tea.
This herbaceous, perennial groundcover may have the doctrinaires of the world scratching their heads, perplexed as to how I could endorse such a plant. Truth is, New Jersey has not said I can’t sell this plant, yet, and I strongly believe in the credo “right plant, right place.” Given the extraordinary set of circumstances associated with the commercial property, Houttuynia just seemed to fit. Houttuynia’s aggressiveness, perseverance and ability to survive almost anywhere was what I was counting on, not to mention the amazing color of ‘Chameleon’…problem solved.
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