How to Plant & Grow Chameleon Plant In Ponds (Houttuynia cordata)


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Red, green, and yellow chameleon plant with several white flowers
Photo by Wouter Hagens [CC BY-SA]
Chameleon plant, a native of Southeast Asia, belongs to the genus Houttuynia within the lizard’s tail family, Saururaceae. Also known as fish mint, Chinese lizard’s tail, or rainbow plant, chameleon plant gets its name from its vibrant green, bronze, red, yellow, and purple-pink leaves.

After a few years, their leaves typically revert to varying hues of green. It has small greenish-white flowers, which possess four petal-like bracts rather than petals, and a terminal spike from which stamens and pistils grow and produce pollen.

Though native to Southeast Asia, chameleon plant has become a popular garden plant due to its bright, colourful leaves and is considered naturalized throughout much of Europe and the Americas. However, though a beautiful addition to gardens and pond margins, this plant is an incredibly prolific grower and very easily becomes invasive and incredibly difficult to kill.

Chameleon plant near pond with white flower and terminal flower pollen spike
Photo by Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova [CC BY-SA]
Therefore, if you choose to have this plant, be forewarned that within a few years it will spread via rhizomes as well as pollination, and is likely to effortlessly choke out other plants as it propagates. It must be planted in pots that will control the spread of its rhizomes; tarps and plastic in the soil to control its spread have proven to be feeble foes against chameleon plant’s robust roots.

It’s considered a very large threat to native plants in woods and wetlands, and is on the Global Invasive Species Database.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Chameleon Plant (Fish Mint)

Houttuynia cordata has traditionally been used, and is often still in use, as a Chinese medicinal herb. Its antiviral, antibacterial, and immune boosting properties have been shown to be effective in fighting influenza as well as pneumonia and other respiratory afflictions. However, you should not try to utilize the plant medicinally yourself, as incorrect usage and dosing can lead to anaphylaxis and potentially death.

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Chameleon Plant Fact Sheet:
PLANT TYPE
Herbaceous Perennial
HARDINESS ZONES
USDA 4 – 10
LIGHT REQUIREMENTS
Full sun to full shade
BLOOM COLOR
White/greenish white
BLOOM PERIOD
May – June (late spring, early summer)
MAXIMUM GROWTH
Spread up to 60 – 120 cm (24 – 48 in), height 15 – 30 cm ( 6-12 in)
PLANTING DEPTH
7.5 – 13 cm (3-5in; just enough to cover the roots)
WATER QUALITY
pH 6.0-6.5

Chameleon Plant Growth, Hardiness & Climate

Red and green chameleon plant on edge of pond
Photo by Jamain [CC BY-SA]

If planted from bare roots, chameleon plant can take a year or two to fully emerge and develop. However, once established, it’s a fast grower, with stems and rhizomes that spread horizontally above and belowground, respectively.

A single plant can grow up to a foot in height and spread two feet, sometimes more. Be sure to plant each chameleon plant a couple of meters apart in preparation for this. Hardiness zones 4 through 10 all work well for this plant, as it’s incredibly hardy and able to withstand cold and hot climates.

Full sun, partial shade, or full shade suits chameleon plant just fine as well, though full or partial shade seem to be preferred. Sunnier conditions seem to help bring out brighter colors in the leaves. Blooming occurs for a short span from May to June, producing blooms that are white or greenish white in color.


How to Plant Chameleon Plant In Ponds

Older chameleon plants revert to vibrant green coloring
Photo by Meneerke bloem [CC BY-SA]

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 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.


How to Care For & Maintain Chameleon Plant

White flower of chameleon plant with terminal spike
Photo by Wouter Hagens [Public domain]

Quite resilient, chameleon plant doesn’t require much care – keep the soil damp, and this plant will be quite happy. You will need to trim it as needed to control its spread, and clean any dropped flowers and foliage from the water to maintain healthy water quality.

If they do begin to spread beyond the bounds of their container, you may have to dig up the rhizomatous roots of the plant as these can survive in the soil and continue producing new growth for years.


How to Winter Chameleon Plant In Ponds

Perennial chameleon plant is able to overwinter outside
Photo by Wouter Hagens [Public domain]
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.


Is Chameleon Plant Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

Chameleon plant is incredibly invasive outside of Southeast Asia, so exercise caution when planting to ensure it cannot possibly spread outside of a designated area. Ceramic, metal, and stone planting pots seem to work well, but plastic will eventually degrade at chameleon plant’s strong rhizomes can push through it within a couple of years.

It is not known to be toxic to fish, humans, dogs, cats, or any other organisms.


Is Chameleon Plant Plant Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

A non-toxic plant, the leaves can be utilized as a garnish or eaten whole in salads or cooked. It produces a distinct somewhat fishy flavour, hence one of its nicknames being “fish mint.” The roots are also commonly boiled and mashed into chutneys, and make a popular addition to fish dishes in India. In Vietnam, the leaves can be ground up into pasta salads and spring rolls.

There is not much information on whether pond fish find chameleon plants palatable. However, since it’s non-toxic, it shouldn’t harm them if they do, and planting it in pots will not only prevent overgrowth but will deter fish herbivory any roots and stems that are underwater.


Where to Buy Chameleon Plant & Seeds? (UK & US)

A quick online search should yield a variety of locations where chameleon plant can be purchased in your local area. It can be found at various home improvement stores, plant nurseries, online outlets, and aquarium or pond retailers.

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