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Dokudami: A Useful and Pretty Little Weed


Dokudami with bergamot leaves in the garden.
There are some plants that seem to simply appear no matter what a grower does. Sugina (horsetail) and dokudami (Lizard's Tail) are two that are incredibly persistent. They are some of the first plants to appear in soil that has been cleared of other vegetation or structures, and their extensive root systems let them rapidly spread.

Many gardeners express extreme frustration at them, but I take a slightly different approach. I try to work with them. I often feel that if a plant feels that much need to be there, maybe I should make some room for it and see what's going on.

Dokudami has a long and well-established relationship with humans in this region of the world. Part of the traditional medicine cabinet, dokudami leaves are often dried to make a tea that helps with digestion, constipation, and high blood pressure among others. It is also included on the Japanese Government's List of Approved Kampo (Chinese Medicine) plants.

One friend described how her mother used dokudami as a home remedy for insect bites and pimples. "She washed the leaves, and then gently rubbed them with salt," she said. Then her mother placed the leaves on the affected for one night as a simple kind of poultice that drew out whatever was the source of the trouble.

Happy dokudami blossoms on one edge of my garden.
The same friend also enjoys the fresh leaves as part of her nightly bath. Again, she washes the leaves, places them in a net bag, and throws them in the hot water. "When soaking in the water, I rub the leaves lightly to help remove the leaf extract," she said. "Now is the best season," she added, "although the smell is strong."

Indeed, the smell is strong, and in some cases seems downright fishy in essence. The leaves, roots and stems of dokudami are edible and are part of traditional dishes in Korea and India.

Dokudami is also a happy resident in my Kanagawa garden. It fills in blank spots in my northern bed with ease, which is a mixed blessing, of course. While I am grateful for the living mulch it provides and the pollinators that enjoy its flowers, I have to admit that it took some effort to keep it from running rampant over my onions and arugula. (Once established, dokudami is a challenge to remove. Reminiscent of mint, the plant spreads by cuttings, so if one is not a patient weed puller, it is possible to end up encouraging it rather than eradicating it.) However, I would rather have my soil protected and covered than not.

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