How to Grow and Care for Chameleon Plant in Your Garden

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I admired a beautiful ground cover display in a friend’s front yard. The plant had heart-shaped leaves with variegated shades of red, green, yellow, and pink. It was a recent planting, and my friend’s first experience with it. She gladly dug up a clump for me to take home, calling it a chameleon plant. I should have done some research on the plant at the time to determine its suitability in my yard. Instead, I planted it in a spot that seemed ideal for it. The plant agreed and happily established itself.

Over the years, it has become invasive, spreading to areas for which it was never meant. Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) is an herbaceous perennial introduced from Asia. It typically grows 9 to 15 inches tall and produces small white flowers in mid to late spring. It prefers full sun or partial shade and medium to wet soil. The plant has an odor which some find offensive and describe as similar to diesel fuel.

Chameleon plant spreads vigorously by rhizomes, those horizontal underground stems that put out lateral shoots and adventitious roots. It sends up new shoots as it spreads indefinitely and aggressively, overrunning anything planted near it. In my yard, it even ceased to be colorful after a few years, becoming only green and eliminating one of my reasons for planting it in the first place. However, I am told that it is more likely to remain colorful when planted in a sunny area.

If you choose to plant chameleon, be certain that it can be confined to the site chosen. It can be planted in containers that are then sunk into the ground. It can be located in an area bordered by a sidewalk or driveway. It is useful around ponds and boggy areas where color is needed in wet soil. Grow in pots as you would any other water plant. It should not be planted near landscaped areas that it might invade.

Chameleon plant is very difficult to eliminate, especially if it has invaded landscaped areas. Manually removing the plants may be effective but all of the pieces of the rhizomes must be removed, as any one left behind will sprout into a new plant. You may have to dig them up several times in order to get all of the rhizome pieces. This becomes difficult if chameleon has invaded existing flower beds. You may have to relocate the landscape plants while dealing with the chameleon. If you do relocate your landscape plants that are growing with the chameleon, be careful not to transplant parts of the chameleon rhizome with the desired plant or you will be transplanting your problem. Rhizomes should be incinerated or put in the trash.

You may find chameleon plants being sold in garden stores without information about appropriate planting instructions or warnings about their aggressive nature. Their colorful leaves and clever name can be appealing. However, that once-beautiful, colorful little clump of chameleon plant has taken over a bed of iris and peonies, reverted to solid green, and continues to spread. I see some serious digging in my future.

I. Understanding Chameleon Plant (Houttuynia cordata)

1. Botanical Information and Origins

Houttuynia cordata, commonly known as chameleon plant, fish mint, rainbow plant, heartleaf, and fish wort, is a herbaceous perennial native to Asia. This plant is well-known for its distinctive variegated foliage and its ability to thrive in various environmental conditions.

I. Understanding Chameleon Plant (Houttuynia cordata)

1. Botanical Information and Origins

Houttuynia cordata, commonly known as chameleon plant, fish mint, rainbow plant, heartleaf, and fish wort, is a herbaceous perennial native to Asia. This plant is well-known for its distinctive variegated foliage and its ability to thrive in various environmental conditions.

2. Key Characteristics and Growth Conditions

SpecificationDetails
Plant TypeHerbaceous perennial
FamilySaururaceae
Growth HabitSpreading ground cover or container plant
Mature Height9-15 inches (23-38 cm) tall
SpreadIndefinite spread through rhizomes
Sunlight RequirementsFull sun to partial shade. Bright variegated leaves develop better color in full sun.
Soil RequirementsRich, moist, well-draining soil. Thrives in medium to wet soil.
Water NeedsConsistently moist, can tolerate standing water
Temperature Range60°F-80°F (15°C-27°C)
Planting TimeSpring or early summer
Spacing12-18 inches (30-45 cm) apart
PropagationDivision or stem cuttings
Growing Zones5-9 (USDA Hardiness Zones)
FlowersSmall white blooms appearing in mid to late spring
LeavesHeart-shaped with variegated colors including red, green, yellow, and pink
OdorProduces an odor that some describe as similar to diesel fuel, which can be offensive to some people

3. Invasiveness

  • Spreading Mechanism: Spreads through rhizomes, which are horizontal underground stems that produce new shoots and roots.
  • Invasive Potential: Can be highly invasive, quickly overrunning garden areas if not properly contained.
  • Containment Strategies: Plant in containers or use physical barriers like sidewalks or driveways to prevent spreading.

II. Choosing the Right Location for Planting

1. Ideal Growing Conditions

  • Light Requirements: Chameleon plant thrives in full sun to partial shade. For the most vibrant variegation in the leaves, full sun is preferable. However, it can still grow vigorously in partially shaded areas.
  • Soil Requirements: This plant prefers rich, moist, well-draining soil. It can tolerate a range of soil types, including clay, loam, and sandy soils, as long as they remain consistently moist.
  • Water Needs: Chameleon plant thrives in medium to wet soil conditions and can tolerate standing water. It is well-suited for boggy areas and can be used as a water plant around ponds and streams.

2. Suitable Planting Sites

  • Containers: Planting chameleon plant in containers is an effective way to control its invasive nature. Use large containers to accommodate its spreading habit. Containers can be sunk into the ground to blend with the landscape while preventing the plant from overrunning other areas.
  • Borders and Barriers: Choose planting sites bordered by sidewalks, driveways, or other hardscapes that can act as natural barriers to restrict the spread of the plant. These barriers help contain the rhizomes and prevent the plant from invading unwanted areas.
  • Ponds and Boggy Areas: Chameleon plant is ideal for planting around ponds, streams, and other wet areas where it can receive consistent moisture. It adds vibrant color to these areas and thrives in wet soil conditions.

3. Considerations for Invasiveness

  • Containment Strategies: Always consider the invasive potential of chameleon plant before planting. Use containers, barriers, and careful site selection to manage its spread effectively.
  • Avoiding Landscaped Areas: Do not plant chameleon plant near landscaped areas, flower beds, or other garden plants that it might invade. Its aggressive spreading habit can quickly overrun other plants and disrupt garden designs.
  • Regular Monitoring: Keep an eye on the growth of the plant and promptly remove any sprigs that escape the designated area. Regular pruning and maintenance are essential to prevent uncontrolled spreading.

III. Planting Chameleon Plant

1. Starting from Rhizomes

  • Selection of Rhizomes: Choose healthy, firm rhizomes from an established chameleon plant. Ensure the rhizomes have visible nodes, as these will produce new shoots and roots.
  • Preparing the Planting Site: Prepare a container or a section of the garden bed with rich, moist soil. If planting in the ground, consider using a container to help contain the plant’s spread.
  • Planting the Rhizomes: Plant the rhizomes horizontally about 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) below the soil surface. Space the rhizomes 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) apart to allow room for growth.
  • Watering: Water thoroughly after planting to settle the soil around the rhizomes. Keep the soil consistently moist to encourage root development and shoot growth.

2. Direct Ground Planting

  • Site Preparation: Choose a site with partial shade to full sun. Ensure the soil is rich, moist, and well-draining. Amend the soil with compost or organic matter to improve fertility and moisture retention.
  • Planting Process: Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the plant’s root system. If planting multiple plants, space them 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) apart. Place the plant in the hole, cover the roots with soil, and press down gently to eliminate air pockets.
  • Watering: Water the newly planted chameleon plant thoroughly. Maintain consistent moisture in the soil, especially during the establishment period.
  • Containment: To prevent the plant from spreading uncontrollably, consider planting it in an area bordered by sidewalks, driveways, or other hardscapes. Alternatively, use a root barrier or plant in containers sunk into the ground.

3. Planting Near Water Features

  • Choosing the Location: Chameleon plant thrives in wet conditions, making it ideal for planting near ponds, streams, or other water features. Select a location where the soil remains consistently moist or even submerged in shallow water.
  • Container Planting: For water gardens or boggy areas, plant chameleon plant in containers without drainage holes. Fill the container with rich, moist soil, and place the container in the water feature so the rim is just below the water surface.
  • Direct Planting in Water: If planting directly in a pond or stream, place the plant in a shallow area with slow-moving water. Ensure the roots are anchored securely in the soil or gravel to prevent them from being washed away.
  • Maintenance: Regularly check the growth of the plant and remove any sprigs that escape the designated area. This will help prevent the plant from becoming invasive and overtaking the water feature.

IV. Care and Maintenance

1. Watering Requirements

  • Consistent Moisture: Chameleon plant thrives in consistently moist soil. Water regularly to keep the soil damp but not waterlogged. In particularly hot or dry conditions, increase watering frequency to maintain soil moisture.
  • Water Features: If planted near ponds, streams, or other water features, ensure the roots remain submerged or the soil stays consistently wet. Chameleon plant can tolerate standing water, making it suitable for boggy areas.

2. Fertilization

  • Organic Matter: Enrich the soil with compost or well-rotted manure to provide essential nutrients. Organic matter improves soil structure, fertility, and moisture retention.
  • Liquid Fertilizer: For container-grown plants, use a balanced, fish-based liquid fertilizer every 4-6 weeks during the growing season. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application rates.
  • Annual Feeding: If planted in the ground, apply a layer of compost or well-rotted organic matter around the base of the plants once a year to maintain soil fertility.

3. Pruning and Controlling Spread

  • Regular Pruning: Trim back the chameleon plant regularly to control its growth and prevent it from becoming invasive. Cut back any shoots that escape the designated area to keep the plant contained.
  • Dividing Plants: Every few years, divide the chameleon plant to manage its spread and rejuvenate its growth. Dig up the plant, separate the rhizomes, and replant them in their designated areas.
  • Containment Barriers: Use physical barriers such as root barriers, sidewalks, or driveways to limit the spread of the plant. This helps prevent it from invading unwanted areas.

4. Pest Management

  • Common Pests: Chameleon plant is generally resistant to pests, but it can occasionally be affected by aphids, slugs, and snails. Inspect the plant regularly for signs of pest damage.
  • Natural Control Methods: Use natural pest control methods such as introducing beneficial insects (e.g., ladybugs) to manage aphid populations. Diatomaceous earth and copper tape can deter slugs and snails.
  • Manual Removal: Handpick pests off the plants if infestations are small. For larger infestations, consider using organic insecticidal soaps or neem oil.

5. Disease Prevention

  • Leaf Spot and Fungal Diseases: Chameleon plant can occasionally suffer from leaf spot or other fungal diseases. Ensure good air circulation around the plants to reduce humidity and prevent fungal growth.
  • Watering Practices: Water the plants at the base rather than overhead to keep the foliage dry. Wet leaves can promote the growth of fungal diseases.
  • Sanitation: Remove and dispose of any diseased or dead plant material promptly to prevent the spread of diseases. Keep the garden area clean and free of debris.

V. Managing Invasiveness

1. Containment Strategies

  • Using Containers: Planting chameleon plant in containers is one of the most effective ways to control its invasive nature. Choose large containers to accommodate its spreading habit. Sinking the containers into the ground can blend them with the landscape while preventing the plant from spreading beyond the desired area.
  • Barriers and Borders: Plant chameleon plant in areas bordered by sidewalks, driveways, or other hardscapes that act as natural barriers. These barriers help to contain the rhizomes and prevent the plant from invading other parts of the garden.
  • Root Barriers: Install root barriers around the planting area to restrict the spread of the rhizomes. These barriers can be made from materials like metal, plastic, or concrete and should be buried at least 12 inches (30 cm) deep to be effective.

2. Regular Monitoring and Maintenance

  • Frequent Inspections: Regularly inspect the planting area to monitor the spread of the chameleon plant. Look for any shoots or rhizomes that are extending beyond the designated area.
  • Pruning and Trimming: Cut back any shoots that escape the containment area to prevent further spread. Regular pruning helps to keep the plant manageable and within bounds.
  • Division and Replanting: Every few years, dig up and divide the chameleon plant to control its size and spread. Replant the divided sections in their designated areas to maintain control over the plant’s growth.

3. Manual Removal Techniques

  • Digging Up Rhizomes: Manually removing the chameleon plant can be effective, but it requires diligence. Dig up the plant, ensuring that all pieces of the rhizomes are removed, as any remaining fragments can regrow. This process may need to be repeated multiple times to completely eliminate the plant from an area.
  • Disposal of Rhizomes: Properly dispose of the removed rhizomes to prevent them from taking root elsewhere. Do not compost the rhizomes, as they can survive and spread. Instead, bag them and dispose of them in the trash or incinerate them if possible.

4. Avoiding Planting in Sensitive Areas

  • Landscaped Areas: Avoid planting chameleon plant near landscaped areas, flower beds, or other garden plants that it might invade. Its aggressive spreading habit can quickly overrun other plants and disrupt garden designs.
  • Natural Ecosystems: Do not plant chameleon plant near natural ecosystems or wild areas, as it can outcompete native vegetation and disrupt local biodiversity.

5. Educating Gardeners

  • Awareness: Educate fellow gardeners about the invasive nature of chameleon plant. Share information on proper containment and management techniques to prevent unintentional spreading.
  • Responsible Planting: Encourage responsible planting practices by informing gardeners about the importance of choosing suitable locations and containment methods for chameleon plant.

VI. Planting Companions

1. Suitable Companion Plants

  • Comfrey: This hardy perennial can thrive alongside chameleon plant, providing a lush ground cover. Comfrey has deep roots that help improve soil structure and bring up nutrients from deep within the soil, benefiting nearby plants.
  • Chamomile: Chamomile can grow well with chameleon plant, offering both aesthetic appeal and practical benefits. It attracts beneficial insects and can improve the health of surrounding plants.
  • Lavender: Lavender’s strong fragrance can help deter pests and it thrives in similar growing conditions as chameleon plant. Its purple flowers also add a lovely contrast to the variegated leaves of the chameleon plant.
  • Mint: Both mint and chameleon plant have spreading habits, but they can coexist if their growth is monitored. Mint’s vigorous growth can help keep the chameleon plant in check, and its scent can repel pests.
  • Lemon Balm: Lemon balm is another vigorous grower that can pair well with chameleon plant. It also has a pleasant lemon scent that can attract beneficial insects and repel pests.

2. Benefits of Companion Planting

  • Pest Control: Some companion plants, such as lavender and chamomile, can help repel pests naturally with their strong scents. This reduces the need for chemical pest control methods.
  • Soil Improvement: Deep-rooted plants like comfrey can improve soil structure and nutrient availability. They bring nutrients from deeper soil layers to the surface, benefiting shallow-rooted plants like chameleon plant.
  • Biodiversity: Planting a variety of species together enhances garden biodiversity. This creates a more resilient ecosystem that can better withstand pests, diseases, and environmental stresses.
  • Aesthetic Appeal: Companion plants with different colors, textures, and growth habits can create a visually appealing garden. The contrast between chameleon plant’s variegated leaves and the flowers of lavender or chamomile adds interest and beauty to the garden.

3. Planting Strategies

  • Spacing and Placement: Ensure that companion plants are spaced appropriately to avoid overcrowding. Consider the mature size of each plant and place them in a way that allows for healthy growth and air circulation.
  • Monitoring Growth: Regularly monitor the growth of both chameleon plant and its companions. Trim back any plants that start to overgrow or encroach on neighboring plants to maintain balance in the garden.
  • Seasonal Maintenance: Perform seasonal maintenance such as pruning, dividing, and replanting to keep the garden healthy and vibrant. This ensures that all plants have the space and resources they need to thrive.

VII. Harvesting, Using, and Storing Chameleon Plant

1. Harvesting Leaves and Rhizomes

  • When to Harvest: Chameleon plant can be harvested throughout the growing season. The leaves are best harvested when they are young and tender for the freshest flavor. Rhizomes can be harvested in the fall or early spring.
  • Harvesting Leaves: Use scissors or garden shears to cut the leaves at the base of the stem. Regular harvesting encourages new growth and prevents the plant from becoming too invasive.
  • Harvesting Rhizomes: Carefully dig around the plant to expose the rhizomes. Use a garden fork or trowel to lift the rhizomes out of the soil. Be sure to remove all parts of the rhizome to prevent the plant from regrowing in the same spot.

2. Using Chameleon Plant

  • Culinary Uses: Chameleon plant leaves can be used fresh in salads, as a garnish, or cooked in a variety of dishes. The leaves have a unique, pungent flavor that can enhance soups, stews, and stir-fries. In some cuisines, the leaves are used in herbal teas and medicinal preparations.
  • Medicinal Uses: Traditionally, chameleon plant has been used for its medicinal properties. It is believed to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and detoxifying effects. The leaves can be used in herbal teas or made into tinctures and extracts.

3. Storing Chameleon Plant

  • Short-term Storage: Freshly harvested leaves can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Place the leaves in a plastic bag or container with a damp paper towel to maintain moisture.
  • Drying Leaves: To preserve chameleon plant leaves for longer periods, dry them thoroughly. Spread the leaves in a single layer on a drying rack or hang them in small bundles in a well-ventilated area. Once dry, store the leaves in an airtight container away from direct sunlight.
  • Freezing Leaves: Blanch the leaves in boiling water for a few seconds, then immediately transfer them to ice water to stop the cooking process. Pat the leaves dry and place them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Freeze until solid, then transfer the leaves to a freezer bag or container for long-term storage.
  • Storing Rhizomes: If you plan to replant or share rhizomes, store them in a cool, dark place. Wrap the rhizomes in slightly damp paper towels and place them in a perforated plastic bag or container. Check periodically to ensure they remain moist but not waterlogged.

VIII. Troubleshooting Common Issues, Tips for Successful Growth, and FAQ

1. Pests and Diseases

a. Common Pests

Chameleon plant is generally resistant to most pests, but it can occasionally be affected by aphids, slugs, and snails. Regular inspection is essential to catch any infestations early.

  • Aphids: These sap-sucking insects can cause damage by feeding on the plant’s juices, leading to distorted growth and a sticky residue. Control aphids by introducing beneficial insects like ladybugs or using insecticidal soap.
  • Slugs and Snails: These pests can cause significant damage to the leaves. Use barriers such as copper tape, diatomaceous earth, or organic slug pellets to protect the plants. Handpicking is also effective.

b. Diseases

Chameleon plant can sometimes suffer from fungal diseases, especially in humid conditions.

  • Leaf Spot: This fungal disease causes dark spots on the leaves, which can lead to leaf drop. Improve air circulation by spacing plants properly and avoid overhead watering. Remove and destroy affected leaves to prevent the spread of the disease.
  • Root Rot: Caused by overly wet soil, root rot can be prevented by ensuring good drainage and avoiding waterlogged conditions. Plant chameleon in well-draining soil and avoid overwatering.

2. Tips for Successful Growth

  • Site Selection: Choose a planting site with rich, moist soil and partial to full sun exposure. Avoid areas prone to standing water unless growing the plant as a water feature.
  • Soil Preparation: Amend the soil with compost or well-rotted manure to improve fertility and moisture retention. Well-draining soil is crucial to prevent root rot.
  • Regular Maintenance: Keep an eye on the plant’s spread and prune regularly to manage its invasiveness. Remove any shoots or rhizomes that escape the designated area.
  • Watering: Maintain consistent moisture, especially during dry periods. Water at the base of the plant to keep the foliage dry and reduce the risk of fungal diseases.
  • Mulching: Apply a layer of organic mulch around the base of the plant to retain soil moisture and suppress weed growth. Mulch also helps maintain consistent soil temperature.

3. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How much water does chameleon plant need?

Chameleon plant thrives in consistently moist soil. Ensure the soil remains damp but not waterlogged. For container-grown chameleon plant, place the pots in a shallow tray of water to maintain moisture levels.

Can chameleon plant be grown indoors?

Yes, chameleon plant can be grown indoors in containers. Ensure it receives bright, indirect light and maintain high humidity levels. Keep the soil consistently moist.

What are the ideal soil conditions for chameleon plant?

Chameleon plant prefers rich, moist, well-draining soil. It can tolerate a range of soil types, including clay, loam, and sandy soils, as long as they remain consistently moist.

How do I prevent pests in my chameleon plant?

Regular inspection and proper maintenance can help prevent pest infestations. Introduce beneficial insects, use natural pest control methods like diatomaceous earth, and remove any affected leaves promptly.

When is the best time to harvest chameleon plant?

Harvest chameleon plant leaves throughout the growing season when they are young and tender. Rhizomes can be harvested in the fall or early spring.

Can chameleon plant grow in shaded areas?

Yes, chameleon plant can grow in partial shade, but it will develop more vibrant colors in full sun. Ensure the chosen location receives at least a few hours of direct sunlight each day.

What nutrients does chameleon plant need?

Chameleon plant benefits from rich, organic soil. Amend the soil with compost or well-rotted manure to provide essential nutrients. Use a balanced, fish-based liquid fertilizer for container-grown plants.

How can I store harvested chameleon plant?

Fresh leaves can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. For long-term storage, dry or freeze the leaves. Rhizomes should be stored in a cool, dark place, wrapped in slightly damp paper towels.

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