Houttuynia cordata (hoo-TY-nee-uh kor-DAY-tuh) is one of those herbaceous perennials that gets less attention than it deserves.
The plant is native throughout the Orient, from China and Northeastern India to Japan and Korea. The leaves come in a range of colors, and much of the plant is edible.
The shrub is best known by the common name “chameleon plant” in the West, although a range of other nicknames exist, especially in its native habitat.
- Bishop’s weed
- Chameleon plant
- Chinese lizard tail
- Chu ts’ai
- Fish leaf
- Fish mint
- Heart leaf
- Rainbow plant
- Vap ca
- Yu xing cao
It’s one of about seven known species in the Saururaceae family.
While chameleon plant has a visual appeal when used as a perennial ground cover, its true value lies in the cuisines and traditional medicines of Southeast Asia.
Growers should always confine the plant, as the rhizomes fragment easily and will continue to regrow and spread if even a small piece remains after removing the plant itself.
Chameleon Plant Care
Size & Growth
H. cordata is a fast-growing shrub which grows to approximately .6 to 24” inches tall and 39” inches across. Its 3” inch long, heart-shaped leaves are green with margins that may be bronze, cream, maroon, pink, red, or yellow.
These grow opposite each other on thin, vertical stems and give off a variable scent when crushed or bruised..
While the plant appears to die in autumn, the root system remains viable and is capable of remaining dormant for up to 20 years. It can be slow to emerge in spring, but spreads quickly underground if not contained.
Flowering and Fragrance
With a bloom time extending from May to late summer, the flowers of these hermaphrodite plants are sometimes missed due to their tiny size.
Short 1 to 1.5” inch spikes (for which the family gets its name of “lizard tail”) are surrounded by four tiny white bracts. The flowers themselves are greenish white to greenish yellow and under 1” inch in size.
Light & Temperature
Zyuyaku will require either part or full sun, depending on the results you prefer.
In full sun, the leaves have a fuller and more varied range of colors. However, it grows faster in partial sun, with leaves generally taking on a green or maroon color.
The plant is also able to survive in a wide range of temperature conditions, being plantable in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 11, although it prefers zones 5 to 8.
The roots are extremely resilient, but the above-ground portions will die in the first frost. Come spring, the hibernating roots will once again sprout and the seemingly dead plant will regrow.
Watering and Feeding
Dokudami is a versatile plant which requires moderate watering. While well-drained soil is often preferred, it can tolerate up to 2” inches of standing water.
While an organic-rich soil is preferred, the plant will adapt to poor soil conditions and doesn’t require any additional feeding.
Soil & Transplanting
The chameleon plant is able to grow in a wide range of soils, from sandy to clay. Its ability to grow in standing water makes this plant perfect for planting in boggy areas, but it’s unable to handle drought conditions.
You should always transplant this species in sunken containers or otherwise restrict the roots down to a depth of at least 1’ foot to prevent invasive spreading.
Grooming And Maintenance
When care is taken to restrict the roots, this plant requires very little maintenance. However, hot and dry conditions may cause the variegated leaves to scorch when left in full sun.
The plant may be mowed or otherwise crushed to restore healthy foliage, although the resulting smell may be unpleasant for some.
How To Propagate Chinese Lizard Tail
While the seeds may be germinated in a greenhouse and transplanted to pots, chameleon plant’s notoriety comes from its ability to spread from plant fragments, cuttings, and division. It will easily self-propagate if given the chance.
Zyuyaku Pest or Disease Problems
One of the most resilient plants you’ll find, the chameleon plant has no pest or disease issues, although it may attract aphids and slugs. It’s water-tolerant, but cannot handle drought.
This plant is considered a highly invasive species throughout most of the world. As it spreads almost uncontrollably through its rhizomes, growers should only raise the plant in containers, either above or below ground, to prevent unwanted spreading.
Once it spreads out of confinement, zyuyaku is very difficult to stop, as it resists most herbicides. The only known way to completely remove it is to carefully extract all contaminated soil and systematically destroy every trace of rhizome that may be hiding in it.
Suggested Chameleon Plant Uses
When proper care is taken to restrict spreading, this plant makes a great border along driveways or in planters.
Its ability to handle standing water also allows it to be an effective accent to water features such as natural waterways and artificial ponds, although it should remain in sunken containers to prevent invasive growth.
The whole plant is considered edible. The leaves themselves may give slightly different flavors during the growing season, but become bitter by August.
The shoots and leaves are most often harvested in spring. Some believe the flavor of the leaves and roots are different between plants from China and Japan.
A korean tea is called yakmomil-cha when made using the leaves and yakmomil-kkot-cha when made with the flowers. Meanwhile, the root is popular in many Southwestern Chinese cuisines
As a medicinal herb, chameleon plant is a vital part of traditional Chinese medicine and is used for the treatment of many ailments even today.
There is some evidence that the plant is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral. It’s used to fight dysentery, chronic sinusitis, leukemia, coughs, and even snake bites and skin disorders.
Root extract is used as a diuretic, while the leaves are an astringent.