A neighbor showed me a plant brought back by his wife from a trip to Pennsylvania. The donors assured him that “the plant grows well everywhere and anywhere”. He asked me to identify it and its landscape requirements – light, space, soil and water – in order to transplant it into his garden.
The attractive plant, Houttuynia cordata ‘Cameleon’ has variegated heart-shaped leaves with hints of red, burgundy, cream and green. In spring, four showy white bracts surround tiny, inconspicuous greenish-white flowers in inch-long spikes. So the show comes from the leaves, not the flowers. The herbaceous perennial that grows nine to 15 inches tall and spreads horizontally indefinitely and vigorously via rhizomatous roots belongs to the Saururaceae family, also called lizard tail. In its native territory of South Asia – China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam – the plant is valued for its medicinal properties and as a culinary herb. The leaves and roots are eaten in Asian cuisine. The crushed leaves have a citrus scent as well as a fishy smell. Fish mint and fish-smelling herbs are common names in Asia.
The plant has naturalized in hardiness zones 4-10 in North America. In other words, it can and has spread to the lower 48 states. The adaptable plant does well in full sun or full shade, in all soil types, although clay will slow it down a bit. Full sun brings the brightest variegated leaves. It is very tolerant of urban pollution where encroaching vegetation cover can be controlled by fixed structures or concrete barriers – buildings, curbs, sidewalks and large containers. Since the chameleon plant thrives in moist or wet soils, it is used as a ground cover around the water edges of ponds, bogs, and rain gardens. In humid areas, pair the plant with canna, bee balm, elephant ears, lobelia, corkscrew, and silver. In sloping areas, the plant can slow soil erosion. Although it has a fast growth rate, it can be pruned at any time. But size won’t tame this creeping grower.
Before adding the chameleon to your garden, know your level of tolerance to invasive species. Digging up by the roots can be problematic because the rhizomes are fragile and break in the soil. Root fragments grow back. Gardener Daisy
Roach tried covering his floor with black plastic, i.e. tarp, but the technique did not eradicate the roots. Soil solarization, the use of solar energy trapped under clear plastic to kill the invading plant, is also difficult to achieve.
The chameleon plant has no serious pests or diseases that could help eradicate it once it invades your garden. And using chemical controls on invasive species can affect beneficial insects and neighboring plants.
By planting the chameleon plant between a sidewalk and a brick foundation and keeping pruners nearby, the neighbor contained the colorful chameleon. Just be warned of gifts that “grow well everywhere and anywhere”.