Foraging Guide: Ground Elder

Abundant in gardens, grass verges and shady woodland fringes, ground elder is an easy-to-find edible weed of the carrot family that makes a tasty salsa verde.

5th April 2024 | Words by Dave Hamilton

Abundant in shady woodland fringes, grass verges and most likely your back garden too, ground elder is a true forager’s friend. It is a tasty edible weed of the carrot family. Along with Alexanders and White Mustard, it was first brought to the UK by the Romans, who cultivated the plant in their herb gardens. And, just like Alexanders and mustard, it soon escaped cultivation and has since established itself as a pernicious weed throughout the UK and elsewhere. This has made it the bane of thousands of gardeners.

The Romans used it mostly as a food crop, preparing it much like spinach. As it has a similar flavour to parsley, albeit with a hint of carrot, younger leaves may have been used more like a potherb. Later in the Middle Ages, it was used as a medicinal herb. It was drunk as a tea or applied externally as a poultice to treat gout and sciatica, hence its alternative name of ‘goutweed’. It was also planted in monastic apothecary gardens, and you can still find it in the ruins of old monasteries and abbeys. This also explains the origin of another older name for the plant, ‘bishop’s weed’, which echoes this ancient use.


Ground elder is so common that once you have correctly identified it, you are likely to see it everywhere you go! It begins life as a small plant with three groups of elliptical leaves (which look like squashed circles with a point at one end). The top group of leaves (or technically leaflets) have three toothed leaves, whilst the bottom group will have two to three. It has a hollow, grooved flower stem which varies from about 35-40cm to a metre or more.

Ground Elder

As a member of the carrot family, it has umbel-like white flowers. Care should be taken not to confuse it with poisonous members of the carrot family. This includes hemlock, which has feathery/fern-like leaves and an unpleasant smell, and hemlock water dropwort, which has similar leaves to flat-leafed parsley and is mainly found on riverbanks or in damp places. It might also be mistaken for dog’s mercury, so it is worth familiarising yourself with this plant before picking. Lastly, the plant also bears a resemblance to the leaves of the elder tree (hence its name) but the plant you’re looking for is of course a low-lying shrub, not a tree at all.

Where to find it

Wherever you find human habitation you will normally also find ground elder. It spreads through grass verges, wasteland and anywhere it can get a foothold. A common weed in gardens, it is almost impossible to get rid of once it is established. Ground elder can also tolerate some shade so, if you are fortunate enough to have a garden free of ground elder, woodland fringes are a good place to seek them out. The plant is native to mainland Europe and Asia, but it has been introduced to the UK and North America.

Ground Elder

Preparation and use

The young, light green shoots have a pleasant carrot-like flavour, a little like a fusion of parsley, carrot and celery. It makes a perfect addition to a salad either on its own or mixed with light flavours such as cucumber, lettuce and tomato. I use the young leaves in the same way as I would parsley, chopping it up finely and adding it to falafels, soups, curries or in a kind of wild salsa verde with other spring greens such as wild rocket, three-cornered leek, wild garlic and hawthorn leaves.

As the leaves get older, they become tough and no longer good for salads. These late-spring greens make a delicious soup, or they can be added to curries and cooked dishes in much the same way you would mature spinach leaves.

After it flowers, the plant becomes somewhat sedative and can have both a diuretic and laxative effect. Needless to say, summer foraged ground elder leaves might not be the best choice for a camping trip!

Ground Elder

Ground Elder Salsa Recipe

This is a really simple way of preparing the first new shoots of ground elder. If you can only find a patch of older leaves, you could consider cutting down a patch and returning a couple of weeks later to harvest the fresh shoots.


  • 5 medium tomatoes
  • 1 red onion
  • A handful of fresh, young ground elder shoots
  • The juice of a lime and black pepper or lime pepper (found in Caribbean food stores)
  • Olive oil
  • Tabasco or hot chilli sauce (optional) 
  • Pinch of salt


    1. Finely chop the tomatoes and toss them into a salad bowl.
    2. Wash the ground elder shoots and sort through to remove any stray weeds or grass. 
    3. Finely chop the shoots and mix well into the salad.
    4. Peel the red onion and chop it finely. 
    5. Mix it all together and add the lime juice and black pepper or lime pepper. 
    6. Check for flavour and add the Tabasco and/or a pinch of salt if necessary. 

Serve as a bruschetta with a little toasted bread cut into squares or as a side in a Mexican meal.

Ground Elder

Dave Hamilton is the author of Where the Wild Things Grow: the Foragers Guide to the Landscape, published by Hodder and Stoughton. He has led the Guardian Masterclass in foraging and currently works as an instructor for Britain’s leading foraging course company, Wild Food UK.

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