Britta's Letters from (and sometimes about) Berlin

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Rumpelstiltskin (in My Garden! - Ground Elder)

©Brigitta Huegel

Today I feel like the greedy king in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin.
You remember: the miller, to make that already lovely maid even more attractive, bragged to the king that his daughter could spin straw to gold, and then the poor girl sits in one of the King's big chambers, filled with straw, and can make it only with Rumpelstiltskin's help. But as in most fairy tales once is not enough: three time's the greedy king lusts for more, and each time the amount of straw she has to spin becomes more and more...
And why do I feel like this?
Well, today is the first time of this year that Julia came, Julia who helps me to pretend that it is Me who is in charge of my garden - being the king of the castle, so to speak.
Last year we put up a brave fight against the green weedy members of the occupying forces on the long gravel walks, so I think Julia is now sophisticated enough to become consecrated into the secrets of battling ground elderwhich has as many names as rhizomes: bishopswort, ashweed, goatweed, pigweed, English masterwort, herb gerard, and, and, end! - lets do the only sensible thing that gardeners all over the world do when talking to a foreign friend: they use the Latin word, Aegopodium podagraria, and everything is clear.    
In the mind - not in the garden beds.
On the gravel walk it is almost impossible to make a mistake, but that is a place which ground elder seldom chooses - no, it prefers the herbaceous perennials, penetrates them lovingly by crocheting its rhizomes deeply into their roots. (It is not for nothing that you speak of garden beds).
That, like a strong spouse, provides it with the best possible protection you can think of.
First I tell Julia that she has to be gentle and careful with the perennials.
Then I show her the other plants that have to be spared - they are almost invisible among the gay green entanglement of bishopweed's leaves, wearing their magic hood on the silver-green lancet-shaped leaves of the faded snowdrops; the dark green spiky leaves with the white stripe in the middle of faded crocuses; the just now unfolding lime green powdered leaves of the auriculas; the pale pink waxen shoots of the bleeding hearts - they all must be lovingly protected from damage, while eliminating bishopsweed thoroughly.
Julia does her job very well, and she tells me that she almost enjoys weeding ground elder.
I share her feelings: when I do it, especially after a light warm summer rain that areates the soil, I sometimes fall into a kind of trance - I am hooked in more than one way, become cunning, hoe into the earth and triumph when I succeed in catching a particularly long string of a sub terrestrial rhizome.
At night after such a weeding orgy it can happen that I lie in my bed, my back hurting like hell, and behind my closed lids I see rows and rows of tiny dark red heads, helmets of an unending army of bishopsweed; I see the Chinese Terracotta Warriors and I feel as deadly exhausted as Qin Shi Huang Di. 
There are little triumphs, reminding me that nothing in life is only good or bad: if you have The Knack and neither pull too firmly nor too meekly, you might catch 50 centimetres or more of the rhizome, and tearing it up you gloat with pride and call yourself a Master of the 5. DAN and wrap your Godan around your hurting hips and Julia calls you RHENSHI.
Dream on... -  in the end there is always only ONE winner - and that's not I...
Cut ground elder's rhizome with your spade accidentally, and it will behave like Rumpelstiltskin, who out of fury ripped himself in two parts at the end.
See? SEE, gentle reader and knowing gardener, where the author is leading you to? Yes: as a connoisseur you see the Learnean Hydra, raising her nine ugly heads and be sure: you'll always come to the one that is immortal and thus indestructible, and your labour will start again, my dear Hercules.
And why am I feeling like the king in Rumpelstiltskin?
Well: Julia cheerfully worked two-amd-a-half hours in one flowerbed.
But then, when this task is done, and the new day dawns, a glance at the bed behind the rose trellis will reveal another chamber, twice as big, filled with the double portion of straw -- err, no -- a bigger bed, filled with ground elder....    


  1. I have never heard ground elder called bishops weed before, a much more attractive name for such an invasive plant. Fortunately it does not like my garden - poor Julia has a never ending task ahead of her. It was unfortunately imported from Eurasia.

  2. Dear Rosemary, thank you so very much! I will instantly change the name from ground elder (which was the term I used in England - but some gardeners did not understand it, though they had lots and lots of it :-)
    Yes, it is a nuisance (though in early spring I used it as a sort of spinach, quite nice.

  3. Masterwort sounds a quite appropriate name.
    My father used to tell me a weed is something that grows where it is not wanted.

    1. Dear Joanne, masterwwort sounds good to me too: it will keep the upper hand in the end.
      In Germany people have a lot of names for it - depending on the different federal states and dialects. I like the Bavarian version: "devil's twine (or thread).
      PS: did you get my notes on Facebook? If not I will write by hand. But reading about your treatment I just will wait some time - you getting healthy is an absolute first! (I have a few shirts, so I have not to suffer from scarcity :-)

  4. I halfway expected you to burst into maniacal laughter somewhere in the middle of this post. This was so well written that I experienced a range of emotions that I do not think I ever felt in connection with the garden.

    1. Dear Emma, you make me so proud! It is part of a book I wrote about my garden in Hildesheim - and a very, very good German publisher had already accepted it, then the top manager cancelled because he fears that it is difficult to place in a bookshop (not 'How To', and not pure literature); so I was really sad. Now I might learn to produce an e-book :-)

  5. When I was a child I was frightened of Rumpelstiltskin, the miller and the king and I believed it was real, not being able to tell the difference between fairy tales and real life. Of course I haven't changed very much but I am sure this enriches my life so I see it as a bonus not a set back. I shall now worry about Julia.

    1. Dear Rachel, most fairy tales were so frightening that I refused to listen (and our son refused completely, so he got all English children literature and thrived on it, as I do, still). Ask a person which fairy tale he/she loves best: it is a wonderful way to learn a bit about them (preferences might change over the years).
      I tried to leave the habit of worrying behind - (ask Husband whether I succeed) - so Julia is fine by her own decision :-)

  6. I was under the misapprehension that you didn't have a garden just a balcony! Ground Elder is the bane of my life - I fear I will never be rid of that darned weed - I hope your efforts are successful.

  7. Dear Elaine - you were right and wrong: when we lived in Hildesheim for 20 years, I planted a very big and beautiful garden. Then we moved to Hamburg, now to Berlin, and here we only have a balcony (and I was visiting the 100. Chelsea Flower Show as a little consolation). The manuscript was written in (and after) Hildesheim. We almost (hahaha) managed to get ground elder out of the garden - now our tenants will keep it (hopefully) out.