Chameleon Plant (Houttuynia cordata)

Fish Mint, Fish Leaf, Rainbow Plant, Chameleon Plant, Heart Leaf, Fish Wort, Chinese Lizard Tail

Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) is a perennial low-growing shrub. In spring, its leaves burst forth with a kaleidoscopic mix of red, green, and white coloration. The name “chameleon” references the plant’s colorful nature. In summer, beautiful white flowers with bristle-like centers bloom. Chameleon plant is common in Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Houttuynia cordata, also known as fish mint, fish leaf, rainbow plant, chameleon plant, heart leaf, fish wort, or Chinese lizard tail, is one of two species in the genus Houttuynia (the other being H. emeiensis). It is a flowering plant native to Southeast Asia. It grows in moist, shady locations. It was named after Martinus Houttuyn.

Houttuynia cordata is a herbaceous perennial plant that can grow to 0.6–1 m (2 ft 0 in – 3 ft 3 in), spreading up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in). The proximal part of the stem is trailing and produces adventitious roots, while the distal part of the stem grows vertically. The leaves are alternate, broadly heart-shaped, 4–9 cm (1+1⁄2–3+1⁄2 in) long and 3–8 cm (1–3 in) broad. Its flowers are greenish-yellow and borne on a terminal spike 2–3 cm (3⁄4–1+1⁄4 in) long with four to six large white basal bracts. It normally blooms in the summer.

It is considered an invasive plant because of its ability to regrow rhizomes from any segment of its foliage.

Houttuynia cordata is a herbaceous perennial plant that can grow to 0.6–1 m (2 ft 0 in – 3 ft 3 in), spreading up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in). The proximal part of the stem is trailing and produces adventitious roots, while the distal part of the stem grows vertically. The leaves are alternate, broadly heart-shaped, 4–9 cm (1+1⁄2–3+1⁄2 in) long and 3–8 cm (1–3 in) broad. Its flowers are greenish-yellow and borne on a terminal spike 2–3 cm (3⁄4–1+1⁄4 in) long with four to six large white basal bracts. It normally blooms in the summer.

It is considered an invasive plant because of its ability to regrow rhizomes from any segment of its foliage.

II. How to Grow and Care

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.

Pruning

Prune in late Winter or early Spring to maintain its shape and encourage fresh new growth. Cut back any yellowing or damaged leaves to keep the plant looking its best.

Propagation

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.

Pests and Diseases

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.

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.

III. How to Plant Chameleon Plant In Ponds

Chameleon plant can typically be purchased as bare roots or already established, mature plants. Either way, they can be planted in several inches of soil, or enough to cover the roots and the crown of the stem. If planted along a pond margin, this plant can tolerate water two or three inches above its stem crown (the part of the stem that emerges from the roots).

Again, be advised that the chameleon plant is a prolific and aggressive spreader as well as invasive outside of Southeast Asia, so make certain that all chameleon plants are planted in pots in the ground or mud of pond margins so that their rhizomes cannot spread too far.

IV. How to Winter Chameleon Plant In Ponds

There are no specific overwintering needs for this plant. Gardeners seem to agree that it will survive just about anything, whether you want it to or not, and in its native range is found in the snowy Himalayas. As mentioned above, the roots will remain viable in the soil for many years even if above ground stems and foliage are absent. It should resume growth just fine on its own once ice and snow thaws.

V. Uses and Benefits 

Ornamental 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.

Culinary use

It is commonly grown as a leaf vegetable, and is used as a fresh herbal garnish. The leaf has an unusual taste from its volatile oil decanoyl acetaldehyde, a taste that is often described as “fishy”, earning it the nickname “fish mint”.

In northeastern India, the leaves are commonly used in salads, salsas, or cooked with other vegetables, and as a garnish over side dishes. The tender roots can also be ground into chutneys along with dry meat or fish, chilies, and tamarind. It is taken raw as salad and cooked along with fish as fish curry. In Japan and Korea, the dried leaves may be used as a herbal tea. It is called dokudami-cha (どくだみ茶) in Japan and eoseongcho cha (어성초차) in Korea.

In Vietnamese cuisine, the plant is called diếp cá and is used with grilled meat and noodle salad dishes. Fish mint may be used as a garnish with several Vietnamese dishes, such as gỏi cuốn, stir-fried beef with fish mint salad, and bánh xèo.

Zhé’ěrgēn (Chinese: 折耳根, “broken ear-root”) is the edible rhizome of Houttuynia cordata (yúxīngcǎo; 魚腥草; “fish-smelling grass”) with a fresh, spicy, peppery flavour that is used in southwestern Chinese cuisine, i.e. that of Guizhou, Sichuan, Yunnan and western Guangxi. Typically the leaves are eaten in Sichuan and the root in Guizhou. Zhé’ěrgēn fried with larou (cured pork belly) is one of the staple dishes of Guizhou.

Notable uses include:

  • part of the extensive fried rice cuisine of Guizhou
  • a condiment to migan and mixian noodles when served in broth
  • as a component of dipping sauces used with the Shiping and Jianshui tradition of barbecued tofu
  • raw consumption as part of cold-tossed salads, when it is most frequently combined with coriander, vinegar, fresh chili, and soy sauce.

The leaves are also a little peppery and are frequently consumed in the region.

Traditional medicine

Houttuynia cordata was used in traditional Chinese medicine, including by Chinese scientists in an attempt to treat SARS and various other disorders, although there is no high-quality clinical research to confirm such uses are safe or effective, as of 2018. When administered via injection, H. cordata can cause severe allergic reactions.

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.

Chameleon Plant (Houttuynia cordata) Details

Common name Fish Mint, Fish Leaf, Rainbow Plant, Chameleon Plant, Heart Leaf, Fish Wort, Chinese Lizard Tail
Botanical name Houttuynia cordata
Plant type Ground Cover
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b
Growth rate Fast
Height 0 ft. 6 in. - 1 ft. 8 in.
Width 0 ft. 6 in. - 1 ft. 8 in.
Sunlight Deep shade (Less than 2 hours to no direct sunlight)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Flower color Green
Leaf color Blue