Nightmare Plants: Garden Mistakes That Haunt Us

By October 29, 2010November 22nd, 20114 Comments

Plotline: Innocent gardener falls for beautiful plant species, opens heart and yard to the seductive stranger. Soon the plant’s beauty takes on a sinister cast as it begins to threaten gardener’s home, family, sanity. Sound familiar? Read on for our staff’s picks of our own personal nemeses…

Horseradish and its neverending roots. Photos: L:; R:

Here are some not-so-fond recollections of our vegetative villains:

My Halloween nightmare plant is Armoracia rusticana, or horseradish—that long white root of the Brassica family that I planted two years ago. Somewhat on a whim, I bought 5 starter roots when I was picking up my raspberry canes, thinking that it would be nice to make horseradish sauce for my father. It’s a fun plant to harvest when planted in deep, friable soil because you can keep pulling and pulling, hand over hand, until the root finally breaks. I’ve pulled out whip-like roots that are three or four feet long! Yikes!

Sounds great, right? But beware, such an easy-to-grow and fun-to-harvest plant inevitably takes over the rest of the vegetable garden, spreading via underground shoots to the farthest corners of my garden.

Although it is invasive, the good news is that preparing horseradish is really easy. Here’s my unpatented recipe: throw open all doors and windows, remove your contact lenses, put on gloves, and then throw a 10” peeled section of the root into your food processor. Mash up the root. Then add a tablespoon or so of water and white vinegar and, voilà, you’ve made a great condiment for roast beef or a pungent addition to cocktail sauce or Bloody Marys. Once you’ve imbibed one of those, it doesn’t seem scary at all!

L: creeping lettuce; R: black swallow-wort. Photos: L:; R: The Urban Pantheist.

Ixeris stolonifera, or creeping lettuce. The deceptively delicate appearance of this groundcover masks a voracious appetite; it will swallow everything in its path and blanket your entire property. There is no keeping it within bounds, and it is nearly impossible to eradicate, as any tiny piece of threadlike stolon left in or on the ground will become a new plant, seemingly overnight. Its pretty, buttercup-like flowers scatter seed to the wind like dandelions. Having battled this foe in others’ gardens, if I ever see it in my own yard, I will throw the kids in the car and flee like that family escaping the Amityville Horror.

It was March, I had just moved into a new apartment, and I was chomping at the bit to put winter behind me and get out into the garden. Imagine my excitement (and naiveness) when I was so thrilled by an early sprouter with glossy, nicely-shaped, dark green leaves that was coming up everywhere and changing the front yard from brown to green. Although it was certainly spreading well enough on its own, in my impatience I actually divided and spread it around even more. Little did I know that I was propagating a Vermont invasive, Vincetoxicum nigrum or black swallow-wort. Later in the season, once it bloomed with deep purple/black, star-shaped flowers, and even later, when it started strangling other plants with its relentless tendrils, I realized I had created a monster. I’ve spent much of my time since pulling it out at every opportunity, but at least I’ll never make the same mistake again!

L: Artemisia’s spread; R: bishop’s weed. Photos: L: White Flower Farm; R:

When I was a young gardener, starting my first perennial garden, I would divide and trade perennials every chance I could get, amassing advice along with the little baby plants. I found a feathery gray foliage plant in my friend’s garden and thought, “that is just what I need for my new garden, Artemisia, perfect!” Despite my good friend’s attempt to tell me how much room Artemisia needed, I thought I could control it and it would look best peeking out here and there between my delicate little new perennials. And then, what seemed like overnight, the plant spread to every unoccupied inch of the new garden… and despite countless back breaking and garden-fork-breaking hours keeping it in some places and out of others, I still felt like I could never get ahead of it. I have since learned if a plant wants a lot of room, you give it what it needs, or risk a true garden nightmare!

Evil often comes under the guise of friendship. You move into a new home and a friend brings you some divisions from their garden or you go to the garden center and read about a groundcover that will thickly cover any ground, save you from weeding, and offer pretty white flowers. The best way to deal with this temptation is to smile, eyes fixed, and steadily back away. My garden nemesis is Aegopodium podograria, aka goutweed, bishop’s weed, or snow-in-the-mountain. I have dug, burned and hi-concentrate vinegar doused it. I have suffocated, mowed and even round-up’ed it (sinful as that is.) My “former” perennial garden looks like a bomb went off and the little sadistic plant thrives. I like to think that being stubborn is endearing, but this plant is downright wicked.

L: A “vigorous” trumpet vine; R: a healthy helping of horsetail. Photos: L:; R:

My worst encounter so far has been with Campsis radicans, trumpet vine. Gardening near a trumpet vine is like running from a horde of zombies. You think you can manage it, that you can be fast enough to win, but before you know it, you’re crouched in the dirt, whimpering, surrounded by tendrils and shoots, like groping zombie arms, spilling into every opening, insistent from every angle. I would only ever plant Campsis radicans if I was trying to kill something, like an elephant.

At the top of Erica’s list of plant foes list is the beguiling Equisetum, or horsetail, which she’s been fending off for years in her own garden. It spreads like wildfire in aquatic environments, reproducing almost faster than you can blink by means of both spores and extensive subterranean rhizomes. And just when you think you’ve dug or pulled the “whole” thing out… BAM! It comes back from the undead faster than a zombie in a music video. While pretty when potted, horsetail is still on Erica’s do-not-plant list.

We leave you with a poem from none other than Erica’s writer and garden-designer mother, Elizabeth. Looks like being a plantswoman runs in the family!

Gardener’s Lament

The garden crew had done their job
and finished, turned to go
in the swelling of the full moon
Boswell began to grow.

Boswell is the weed from hell
his roots stretch very deep
in him ancient mysteries
have woken from their sleep.

In witch’s pot and devils’ brews
curses have been cast
entwined with leaves from Boswell’s stem
and centuries have passed

The secret rites roll out like fog
and Boswell breathes them in
the magic binds them to his soul
his roots are deep in sin

The sap that courses through his veins
is black as a moonless night
and everything it drips upon
is stricken with a blight.

An insect dies just landing
on Boswell’s petiole
he traps it in his sticky hair
and soon digests it whole

He likes his meat served live
bees that choose to linger there
don’t get back to the hive.

Yes Boswell has reawakened
his stems stretch into night
by dawn a thousand evil seeds
will start a fledgling flight

by tomorrow’s moonlit sky
new roots will start to grow
Boswell will usurp the world
before we even know.

-Elizabeth Ludlow Bowman
The Compleat Gardener
Lambertville, NJ

As the days grow shorter and the shadows deepen, draw your chair up to the fire with us, and share your own tale of terror in the garden. Happy Halloween from JMMDS!

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • This Oregon garden has ivy, holly, blackberrie, nightshade, buttercup, bishops weed, and all those grasses that are NOT featured in the pretty magazines. I sheet mulched with 4 layers of cardboard and 6 inches of wood chips but without constant vigilance those thugs come right back.

  • Erica Bowman says:

    True I am very afraid of black swallow-wort, goutweed, horsetail and the like, but Boswell chills me to the bone.

  • mother Bowman says:

    as well he should. the mother

  • Laurie Danforth says:

    I too have been bewitched by the devil too many to enumerate. Even if the little devils can be easily removed, their continual return in profusion is a relentless assault on the likes of us who prefer less bullying beings.

    Here’s to the well-behaved plant!!