Ginger ground cover plant

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Just about everyone knows what ginger looks like and that it’s a tropical plant. Before modern international trade, fresh ginger was a real treat. Early colonists in the US found a tasty substitute that that indigenous tribes had been using for centuries. There are two species, Asarum canadense in the East and Asarum caudatum in the West. Either way, it’s commonly known as wild ginger.

Wild ginger is a low growing, shade-loving perennial with heart-shaped leaves. Landscapers use it as a ground cover under dense shade, and it grows wild in woodland regions across the country. This patch below is along the side of a hiking trail in Central Vermont.

The leaves are heart-shaped, which helps with identification. If you’ve never seen wild ginger, it can be confused with coltsfoot leaves. When I was initially looking for it, I stopped and inspected just about every patch of coltsfoot along the trail, but that was only because I was so desperate to find it.

The plants are low growing, and the leaves are very vaguely similar, but coltsfoot leaves are in no way heart-shaped. The second giveaway is the flowers. They’re not visible because the plant sends them out under the leaf litter. Pull the leaves back a bit and look for a few of the wild ginger flowers.

The flowers are pollinated by flies, and supposedly smell like rotting meat to attact flies trying to find a place to lay their eggs. I couldn’t smell anything in the flowers, I could only smell the ginger scent on their leaves and rhizomes. Perhaps I found them at the wrong time? Either way, they didn’t smell bad to me.

A wild ginger flower hiding under leaf litter.

When you pull out a wild ginger flower, it looks a little bit like Trillium. Some of the flowers have much more elongated “petals.” What looks like petals on the flower are actually sepals, because wild ginger flowers don’t have any true petals.

The real prize is the wild ginger rhizome. They’re very small, but they’re tasty and flavorful. Unfortunately, they’re ever so mildly toxic. Keep in mind, that spinach is also mildly toxic…it’s all about the does.

There’s a great discussion on the wild ginger toxicity here, and the take away is that you’d need to eat about 4 1/2 pounds of wild ginger a day for 3-12 months to achieve the toxic dose given to rats. In reality, even in a big patch, it’s difficult to collect more than a few grams of ginger rhizome. Look how small they are…

Unlike tropical ginger, much of the flavor is in the stems and leaves rather than the rhizome. Still, those stems and leaves are remarkably light and it’d be a challenge to collect a whole pound even if you decimated the patch.

Beyond the high dose required for toxicity, wild ginger isn’t meant to be eaten whole. It’s most commonly used in tea, and the toxin is not particularly soluble in water. Just avoid eating the whole root, combining it with vinegar or making an alcohol tincture and it should be just fine.

How to Use Wild Ginger

So how do you use wild ginger? It makes a tasty ginger tea that tastes almost exactly like tropical ginger, but without any of the heat. Think of the smell of fresh ginger, but without the spicy burn on your tongue.

Since you’re limited to water extraction, there are only a few other things you can reasonably do with wild ginger beside tea. This recipe for wild ginger ice cream extracts the flavor from the leaves and stems into cream and milk. Since it only uses the leaves, it won’t kill the plant and is a much more sustainable way to forage wild ginger.

Medicinal Uses of Wild Ginger

Though wild ginger is tasty, it’s most often sought out for its medicinal uses. It’s said to “bring on the menses” which is a subtle way of saying that it was used for contraception. Whether it’s used as a preventative, or it’s a straight-up abortifacient is unclear, but use with caution if you’re a female.

Wild ginger is also known as colic root since it’s used to treat colic, upset stomach, indigestion and cramps.

The root contains antibiotic substances, and it can be chopped into a poultice that’s used under plantain leaves to treat open wounds and skin inflammation. One source says that it was used by Meriweather Lewis to treat wounds during his exploration of the Louisiana territory in 1806.

There are accounts that the native Americans sought it out to season meat that died of unknown causes. Since it has broad-spectrum antibiotic properties, this makes a bit of sense. If you come across a dead animal and you’re hungry, but you don’t know how it died or how long it’s been there…it’s good to use precautions. I’d imagine you’d have to use a lot of wild ginger seasoning to kill pathogens, so I’m not sure how helpful that is.

Wild ginger has also been used to treat heart palpitations, promote sweating to treat fever, as an appetite stimulant and as a general health tonic.

However you use it, use it with caution. It does contain detectable levels of Aristolochic acid which is a known kidney toxin. In very high does, that can be fatal. You’d need to eat an absurd quantity of wild ginger for fatal results, but be careful using it at all if you have kidney issues.

Photo by Hank Shaw

Rarely does a gift come without a price. Much of the food we eat can be toxic to us, depending on how much we consume, on how we combine certain foods and on who were are, genetically speaking.

Eat too much unenriched corn? You get pellagra. Mixed inky cap mushrooms with alcohol? Get ready for a honking case of food poisoning. Are you of Asian descent? Chances are you cannot digest milk.

Just as with bracken fern, cicerchia beans and, to some extent daylilies, wild ginger is a double-edged sword.

I am talking here about North American wild gingers: Eastern, which is Asarum canadense, and Western, A. caudatum. Neither is closely related to the ginger you get in the store, but both are deeply aromatic and smell very much like store-bought ginger. Their taste is far more subtle, and a little more peppery than regular ginger. Both have been used for eons by Native Americans, and pretty consistently by Americans of European extraction since 1600.

Related plants feature prominently in Chinese traditional medicine, and herein lies the problem. Back in 1992, a horrific outbreak of kidney failure cropped up in Belgium. More than 100 people suffered everything from minor kidney damage to total renal failure. Three died.

Medical investigators tracked down the cause: Diet pills loaded with a botanical relative of our ginger, a Chinese herb known as Aristolochia fangchi. The culprit in this herb is a substance known as Aristolochic acid, or AA. And it turns out that all kinds of Chinese herbs contain AA.

Why were they in diet pills? Traditionally, many of these herbs are also diuretics — and diuretics make you pee a lot, which in turn helps you lose water weight. Diuretics are in a lot of diet products to give people the illusion of fast results.

As it happens, our gingers also can contain significant amounts of AA. In one study, some Asarum canadense (pictured below) contained 0.037 percent by dry weight of AA. Western wild ginger had consistently lower levels of AA, but it was still present.

Photo by Hank Shaw

Here we go again. Once more, it is “the poison’s in the dose” effect that we’ve seen before, especially in bracken fern. The studies attempting to recreate what happened to the Belgians fed rats about 10 milligrams of pure AA per kilogram of their body weight each day for 3-12 months. This was roughly the amount of pure AA the Belgians were eating. After the study, all the rats had serious kidney problems.

So it is not in question that AA can cause serious health problems, and given that wild ginger contains this substance, it’s best to not eat it, right? But how relevant is this study to reality? Lots of studies give rats unreasonable amounts of something, just to induce health problems. Is it possible to ingest a dose similar of pure AA similar to what the rats got by eating wild ginger?

Possible, but unlikely. Unlike the case of sassafras, where it would be nearly impossible to ingest enough safrole to get to the toxic doses given to rats in those studies, it is indeed possible to eat enough wild ginger to approach this danger zone.

Photo by Hank Shaw

OK, to start, let’s assume that all wild gingers in North America contain 0.037 percent pure AA by weight: This is not true, as this was the highest level tested of the Eastern wild ginger, and remember the Western wild ginger had lower levels. But for the sake of this exercise let’s assume the worst. So 2 ounces of wild ginger, which is a healthy handful, equals 56,699 milligrams. That means those 2 ounces contain roughly 21 milligrams of pure AA.

Now I weigh 175 pounds, which is 79 kilos. I would need to eat 790 mg of pure AA to get to the daily dose that gave the rats all those health problems, so I’d need to eat about 4 1/2 pounds of wild ginger to get to that daily dose. And remember that the rats were given this dose for 3-12 months. I am still not sure that eating wild ginger is a great idea, however.

Why? I have not been able in my research to determine how “sticky” this AA stuff is, i.e., does the body flush it like other toxins? Or does it bioaccumulate forever? If someone can show me that the body flushes AA I’d feel a lot better about chowing down on some wild ginger.

But before you write off wild ginger entirely, let me throw a monkey wrench into your thinking. Eating wild ginger may be a chancy proposition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy it.

Read through the Chinese literature on this and it seems that all these herbs that contain AA in them are, for the most part, not meant to be eaten at all. No, they are meant to be steeped in a tea and drunk. You toss the herb afterwards. The Chinese not being stupid, further research pops up this important tidbit: Aristolochic acid is barely soluble in water.

This, my friends, is the key.

The FDA protocol for extracting AA is to use formic acid and methanol. Last I checked, no one likes to eat the poison fire ants give off, and all you distillers out there (and you know who you are) will note that methanol is what makes you go blind. However, methanol is close enough to the alcohol we all know and love to make my idea of infusing wild ginger with vodka seem not so smart. Not sure I want maximum extraction of that AA in my ginger for a cocktail.

Another idea I had — making a wild ginger vinegar — also was scotched by the science. It seems AA is also highly soluble in acetic acid. Damn.

Photo by Hank Shaw

Water is your friend. The Meridian Institute determined empirically what the Chinese herbalists have been prescribing for eons: Steeping the various AA-containing herbs, in the Institute’s case our Eastern wild ginger, in water for up to 8 hours extracts only 1 percent of the AA that the herb contains. One percent.

To go back to my example with the 2-ounce handful of wild ginger, even assuming it has the highest AA level that the Schaneberg study found, that would mean I would only ingest 0.21 milligrams of AA if I drank a tea infused with all that ginger. At that rate, I’d need to drink 3700 glasses of that tea to equal the amount of AA I would get from actually eating the ginger.

Now that I can live with. This is far closer to the low levels of risk you get by making your own root beer from sassafras, which is to say not very high.

What’s the takeaway to all this? Here are my recommendations:

  • Do not steep wild ginger in alcohol or vinegar
  • Eat wild ginger at your own risk
  • Enjoy wild ginger steeped in water or a water-based product in moderation

Following my own advice, I made a wild ginger ice cream that was da bomb. It was also just about as low in AA as I could get: I used 2 ounces of Western wild ginger, which, remember, is significantly lower in AA than it’s Eastern cousin, to make a quart of ice cream. And there is no way I can eat a quart of ice cream in a day, or even a week. In terms of risk, I’d say the sugar and fat in the ice cream is a bigger health hazard than the small amount of AA present.

Bottom line is that this is a plant with powerful effects. It is both delicious, and, eaten in certain ways or in certain amounts, can be deadly. You must decide for yourself whether it’s worth it.

Wild Ginger

Wild Ginger

Wild ginger, a native groundcover, thrives in consistently moist, acidic soils. This spring- blooming wildflower, native to much of the U.S., is found growing in woodland areas and wooded slopes throughout the Eastern U.S. Wild ginger is a stemless plant featuring dark green heart- or kidney-shape leaves with visible veining and cup-shape purple-brown flowers that are often hidden beneath its foliage. Wild ginger makes a good groundcover for shady areas, woodland gardens, native plant gardens, edging, and naturalized areas.

In Colonial times, fresh or dried roots of wild ginger were used as a ginger substitute, but wild ginger is not a relative of culinary ginger. Eating wild ginger is discouraged as it is a known carcinogen and can cause kidney problems, so stick to growing it for ornamental use only.

genus name
  • Asarum
light
  • Part Sun,
  • Shade
plant type
  • Perennial
height
  • 6 to 12 inches
width
  • From 6 to 12 inches
flower color
  • Purple,
  • Green,
  • White
foliage color
  • Blue/Green
season features
  • Spring Bloom,
  • Winter Interest
problem solvers
  • Deer Resistant,
  • Groundcover,
  • Slope/Erosion Control
special features
  • Low Maintenance,
  • Good for Containers
zones
  • 3,
  • 4,
  • 5,
  • 6,
  • 7,
  • 8
propagation
  • Division,
  • Seed

Garden Plans For Wild Ginger

Image zoom

Colorful Combinations

The blossoms of wild ginger are borne at soil level, so they are often hidden from view. The flowers bloom in many shades of brown, purple, black, yellow, and white; many feature unique patterning on the petals. The coloring of wild ginger blossoms attracts their pollinators, usually flies and beetles. The plant’s roots smell somewhat like the ginger used in cooking. The earth-toned blossoms, though, mimic the odor of rotting flesh to attract the right pollinators to make seeds. Some species will have larger flowers than others and are worth the hunt to find them. Wild ginger native to the U.S. has simple green foliage, but many other species have leaves veined in silver and patterns similar to a cyclamen.

See more plants with silver foliage here.

Wild Ginger Care Must-Knows

Wild ginger will grow well in medium to wet well-drained soil, however, due to its slow-growing nature, it may take several years to establish and make a substantial clump. To provide your plants with ideal growing conditions similar to a woodland area, add some compost to the soil at the time of planting. During the spring, an additional layer of compost can be added to provide extra nutrients. Wild ginger also prefers acidic soil but can tolerate neutral soil, too.

Wild ginger prefers to grow in part shade to full shade. Some species can take more sun, but be careful with those with intricate leaf types as they can burn and dry out too much. Wild ginger spreads slowly by rhizomes and creates a lush groundcover in shady areas. It’s also deer resistant. Wild ginger can be planted in containers, which allows its flowers to be more easily admired.

See more top native plants of the Northeast here.

More Varieties of Wild Ginger

Asarum caudatum

Native to the Pacific Northwest, Asarum caudatum has slightly glossy deep green leaves and attractive rust brown flowers in Spring. Zones 7-9

Canadian wild ginger

Asarum canadense is a North American native with medium, green downy leaves. It requires regular moisture to look its best. It has better heat tolerance than European wild ginger. Zones 2-8.

Chinese wild ginger

Asarum splendens is an easy-to-grow Chinese wild ginger that is evergreen in mild climates. It has arrowhead-shape leaves with silver mottling and dark purple flowers in spring. Zones 5-9.

European wild ginger

Asarum europaeum bears striking evergreen leaves that have a glossy sheen. Zones 4-8.

Plant Wild Ginger With:

Astilbe brings a graceful, feathering note to moist, shady landscapes. In cooler climates in the northern third or so of the country, it can tolerate full sun provided it has a constant supply of moisture. In drier sites, however, the leaves will scorch in full sun.Feathery plumes of white, pink, lavender, or red flowers rise above the finely divided foliage from early to late summer depending on the variety. It will spread slowly over time where well-situated. Most commercially available types are complex hybrids.

This plant hardly grown 40 years ago is now one of the most commonly grown garden plants. But hosta has earned its spot in the hearts of gardeners — it’s among the easiest plants to grow, as long as you have some shade and ample rainfall.Hostas vary from tiny plants suitable for troughs or rock gardens to massive 4-foot clumps with heart-shape leaves almost 2 feet long that can be puckered, wavy-edged, white or green variegated, blue-gray, chartreuse, emerald-edged — the variations are virtually endless. Hostas in new sizes and touting new foliage features seem to appear each year. This tough, shade-loving perennial, also known as plaintain lily, blooms with white or purplish lavender funnel-shape or flared flowers in summer. Some are intensely fragrant. Hostas are a favorite of slug and deer.

One of the most elegant ferns available for your garden, Japanese painted ferns are washed with gorgeous silver and burgundy markings. Lady fern is equally elegant though not quite as showy. Either will add interest and texture to your shady spots. Closely related to each other, Japanese painted fern and lady fern are sometimes crossed with each other to create attractive hybrids.Unlike most ferns, these toughies will tolerate dry soil. And they will tolerate some sun if they have ample water.

Wild Ginger Stock Photos and Images

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  • european wild ginger, asarum europaeum
  • Wild ginger plant and flower, Andasibe National Park, Madagascar
  • Wild ginger flower blooms beside hiking trail, near Paraty, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
  • Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) flower in early spring in central Virginia.
  • Asarabacca, European Wild Ginger, Hazelwort or Wild Spikenard (Asarum europaeum), Donntal, Lenningen-Gutenberg, Swabian Alb
  • European Wild ginger / Asarabacca / Haselwort / Wild Spikenard (Asarum europaeum) close up of green leaves
  • Flowering European wild ginger
  • Wild Ginger growing in the Cameron Highlands
  • Torch Ginger (Wax Flower) (Etlingera elatior) belongs to the wild ginger family in the garden at Nuuk Cheil Cottages, Maya Ctr.
  • European wild ginger, hazelwort, wild spikenard (Asarum europaeum), leaf, Germany, Baden-Wuerttemberg
  • Wild ginger
  • European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) leaves covered with frost.
  • Rotting wild ginger buds.
  • Etlingera elatior (also known as torch ginger, ginger flower, red ginger lily, torch lily, wild ginger, combrang, bunga kantan, Philippine wax flower,
  • European wild ginger in the autumn forest
  • Close up view of uncultivated wild ginger plants growing in their native woodland environment
  • Canadian Wild Ginger, at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
  • Wild Ginger Asarum caudatum Cascade Mountains Oregon United States
  • Top view of a yellow wild ginger from one of the Zingiber family taken in a tropical forest.
  • european wild ginger, asarum europaeum
  • The damp broad leaves of a large wild ginger catch and hold fallen maple leaves in early winter
  • Wild ginger,Great Smoky Mountain National Park,Tennessee
  • Wild Ginger growing in forest at Tari Southern Highlands Papua New Guinea
  • Asarabacca, European Wild Ginger, Hazelwort or Wild Spikenard (Asarum europaeum), Donntal, Lenningen-Gutenberg, Swabian Alb
  • Wild Ginger growing in primary rainforest, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Borneo, Sabah, Malaysia
  • Canadian wild ginger, Asarum canadense
  • Wild Ginger growing in the Cameron Highlands
  • Red wild ginger flower
  • European wild ginger, hazelwort, wild spikenard (Asarum europaeum), leaf, Germany, Baden-Wuerttemberg
  • Wild ginger
  • European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) and oak leaves covered with frost.
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum) green leaf patterns – North Carolina Arboretum, Asheville, North Carolina, USA
  • Etlingera elatior (also known as torch ginger, ginger flower, red ginger lily, torch lily, wild ginger, combrang, bunga kantan, Philippine wax flower,
  • Wild ginger along North Umpqua National Recreation Trail, Roseburg District Bureau of Land Management, North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River, Rogue-Umpqu
  • Close up view of uncultivated wild ginger plants growing in their native woodland environment
  • Canadian Wild Ginger, at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
  • Elk284-2723 Hawaii, HI, Akaka Falls with wild ginger red flowers
  • Wild Ginger, Satakha village, Nagaland, India
  • european wild ginger, asarum europaeum
  • A wild ginger (Zingiberaceae) growing in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.
  • Wild ginger flower, etlingera occinea, found in a tropical in natural environment.
  • Close up of wild ginger growing in a rain forest.
  • Medicinal tea made of European Wild Ginger (Asarum europaeum), herbal tea
  • Black Beetle on a yellow wild ginger flower, Far North Queensland, FNQ, QLD, Australia
  • British Columbia Wild Ginger, Kalifornisk hasselört (Asarum caudatum)
  • Wild Ginger growing in the Cameron Highlands
  • Closeup of torch ginger flower, also know as ginger flower, red ginger lily, torch lily, wild ginger, a popular decoration in South East Asia
  • Cat in wild ginger patch
  • Wild ginger
  • European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) and oak leaves covered with frost.
  • Wild Ginger plant in the jungles of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
  • Canada Wild Ginger
  • Wild ginger along North Umpqua National Recreation Trail, Roseburg District Bureau of Land Management, North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River, Rogue-Umpqu
  • Macro view of Canadian wild ginger uncultivated wildflower plants growing in their native woodland environment
  • Canadian Wild Ginger, at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
  • Wild ginger plant on the Dong Natad Eco Trek, Savannakhet, Laos
  • Torch ginger, Etlingera elatior, ginger flower, red ginger lily, torch lily, wild ginger, combrang, bunga kantan, Philippine wax flower, 灔炬姜
  • Wild Ginger, Asarum sieboldi
  • A wild ginger (Zingiberaceae) growing in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)
  • Wild ginger cat sitting on the wall
  • Medicinal tea made of European Wild Ginger (Asarum europaeum), herbal tea
  • Wild ginger leaves with fallen crabapple blossoms, Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
  • Two wild ginger cats in Tel Aviv camouflaged against rocks by the sea
  • Wild Ginger growing in the Cameron Highlands
  • Bright green heart shaped leaves and unusual purple flower of wild ginger in a spring forest.
  • Tokugawas clan crest, the triple hollyhock or wild ginger as a golden emblem in the front tiles of roofs in Nikkos Tosho-gu, Japan October 2018
  • Wild ginger
  • Close-up of the flower of the zingiber spectabile or Golden Beehive ginger found in the tropical jungle
  • Wild Ginger plant in the jungles of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
  • Canada Wild Ginger
  • Wild ginger along North Umpqua National Recreation Trail, Roseburg District Bureau of Land Management, North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River, Rogue-Umpqu
  • Western Wild Ginger Groundcover Native Evergreen Plant in Oregon Background
  • Fresh wild ginger root on white background
  • Wild Ginger flower, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Borneo, Sabah, Malaysia
  • Wild Ginger sp., Zingiberaceae, rainforest Mount Kinabalu. Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia, Asia
  • Ants crawling on the bracts of a wild ginger flower (Costus sp.) in the rainforest, Ecuador
  • A wild ginger (Zingiberaceae) growing in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)
  • Asarum europaeum
  • Medicinal tea made of European Wild Ginger (Asarum europaeum), herbal tea
  • grey wild rabbits and one ginger sitting in a green field with houses in the background.
  • Two wild ginger cats in Tel Aviv camouflaged against rocks by the sea
  • Wild Ginger growing in the Cameron Highlands
  • Kiwi Wild Ginger: Asarum campaniforme
  • Canadian Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense, flowering in the forest in Serpent Mound State Memorial in Adams County, Ohio, USA
  • Western wild ginger
  • Close-up of the flower of the zingiber spectabile or Golden Beehive ginger found in the tropical jungle
  • Wild Ginger plant in the jungles of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
  • Green leaves of Asarum europaeum, commonly known as Asarabacca, European Wild Ginger, Hazelwort, and Wild Spikenard
  • Wild ginger along North Umpqua National Recreation Trail, Roseburg District Bureau of Land Management, North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River, Rogue-Umpqu
  • Three gentle pink flowers of Etlingera elatior or Torch ginger or Torch lily or Wild ginger or Ginger flower or Red ginger lily or Philippine wax flow
  • Fresh wild ginger root on white background
  • A beautiful ginger cat sits atop a garden fence staring at a bird nesting box which is attached to a tree.
  • Etlingera elatior (also known as torch ginger, ginger flower, red ginger lily, torch lily, wild ginger)
  • Ants crawling on the bracts of a wild ginger flower (Costus sp.) in the rainforest, Ecuador
  • Wild Ginger, Little River Trail, , Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)
  • scarlet spiral ginger red color flower with greenery
  • White native ginger flowers (Alpinia caerulea), Paluma, Queensland, Australia

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Plant of the Week

Asarum canadense range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Beautiful rusty brown hairs cover the rusty brown recurved tips of the flower and white hairs cover the flower and leaf stems and the backside of the flower. Photo by Tom Barnes.

The leaves of a colony of wild ginger are beautiful to behold. Photo by Tom Barnes.

The flowers of wild ginger occur at the ground level where flies coming from beneath the leaves in early spring find a fake carcass. Photo by Tom Barnes.

Some botanists and entomologists believe the inside of the flower also provides for a place where the early spring flies can “hide out” to avoids cold winds and temperatures. Photo by Larry Stritch.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense L.)

By Larry Stritch

Asarum canadense, wild ginger, is found throughout the eastern half of the United States. It grows in rich mesic soils in shady deciduous forests. Many a hiker has walked past the large colonies of this early spring wildflower not realizing that it has an interesting and peculiar flower underneath the canopy of its heart-shaped leaves. The plants are softly pubescent especially the leaf petiole and the flower. Wild ginger’s flower is located at the base of the plant lying adjacent to the ground. The flowers are bell shaped with three acuminate-reflexed tips. The flower is brownish purple inside. Some folks liken the flower to a little knocked over jug on the ground.

The color and the location of the flower have an unusual and interesting story. The flower evolved to attract small pollinating flies that emerge from the ground early in the spring looking for a thawing carcass of an animal that did not survive the winter. By lying next to the ground flower is readily found by the emerging flies. The color of the flower is similar to that of decomposing flesh. Whether these flies pollinate the flower or not is in some dispute. Never the less they do enter the flower to escape the cold winds of early spring and to feast upon the flowers pollen. Some of the pollen attaches to their bodies and is taken with them when they visit the next flower.

When the seeds finally ripen, they have a little oily food gift attached to the seed; this appendage is called an “elaiosome.” The “elaiosomes” attract ants that carry the seeds off to their underground home where they consume the tasty food and leave the seed to germinate. The ecological advantage is that the seeds are not predated upon by seed-eating animals.

Wild ginger has some interesting ethnobotanical uses as well. Native Americans and early Euro-American settlers have used wild ginger as a spice. The root is harvested dried and then ground into a powder. Early settlers also cooked pieces of the root in sugar water for several days to obtain a ginger-flavored, candied root. The left over liquid was then boiled down to syrup that was used on pancakes and other food items. However, you should be aware that scientists have determined that the plants may contain poisonous compounds and consumption of the plant is highly discouraged.

Native Americans and then Euro-American settlers also used the plant as a poultice to treat wounds. Medical researchers have identified two antibiotic compounds in the plant so its historical use as an antibiotic has been validated.

Wild ginger makes an excellent addition to a shade garden. Growing it from seed is not practical, but a large colony of the plant will have a large mass of underground rhizomes. Rhizomes may be dug from the ground after the plant has leafed out in the spring and transplanted to your wildflower garden. However, harvesting wildflowers from the national forests is illegal unless you have obtained a permit. If harvesting from private property, only do so with the express permission of the landowner. Support your local native plant nursery by purchasing plants that have not been wild collected is a very good option. Once established in your shade garden, the plant will grow into a colony that can expand up to six to eight inches in all directions each year. There is an added bonus to having this fascinating wildflower in your garden. Wild ginger is an alternate host plant for the beautiful Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. Its caterpillars are brownish black with tow rows of orange spots down their back.

For More Information

PLANTS Profile – Asarum canadense, Canadian wildginger

Asarum europeaum has attractive glossy leaves.

There are 60-70 species of woodland perennials in the genus Asarum. These great foliage plants in the family Aristolochiaceae make excellent ground covers for shady sites. Their leaves vary considerably in texture, colors of green and patterning. They all need rich organic soil with plenty of moisture to thrive. Under favorable conditions they spread quickly and vigorously.

European wild ginger forms attractive clumps in shade gardens.

Of these numerous species, European wild ginger, A. europaeum, and wild ginger, A. canadense, are the most commonly available to American gardeners. Both spread slowly to form dense colonies once established. The interesting but inconspicuous, dark brown, reddish or purple, bell-shaped flowers are produced near the ground in spring, hidden by the leaves and blending in with soil and leaf litter.

European Wild Ginger (A. europeaum)

Leaf pairs emerging in early spring.

This elegant plant with glossy, dark green, nearly rounded leaves makes an excellent ground cover. Plants form neat clumps up to 6 inches high and remain evergreen where winters are not too harsh; in Wisconsin the leaves generally die back to the ground. The leaves are produced in pairs and the small, greenish-brown drooping flowers are rarely noticed, being hidden by the foliage.

The leaves of European wild ginger sometimes remain evergreen through Wisconsin winters, but are often damaged.

This plant prefers part to full shade and rich, moist soil – but has done very well in my garden on clay soil with summer sun until about 2:00 p.m. A. europaeum combines nicely with bleeding heart (Dicentra), foamflower (Tiarella) and other shade-loving plants. It is hardy in zones 4-8.

Wild Ginger (A. canadense)

Wild ginger is bigger than European wild ginger.

This plant is larger and coarser than its European cousin, growing to 8 inches. This species, native to eastern and central North America, is hardier too, surviving to zone 3. Wild ginger has large, heart-shaped, deciduous dark green leaves. The creeping rhizome has a ginger-like odor and flavor; Native Americans used the root to flavor foods like we use culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale, in a completely different plant family).

The flowers of wild ginger, Asarum canadense, are small, dark-colored and hidden by the foliage.

The pendulous flowers, which hang down under the foliage, are pollinated by ants and other small insects that crawl into the flowers. There are few cultivars available. ‘Eco Choice’ is denser than the species and ‘Eco Red Giant’ is larger than the species.

The subspecies A. canadense reflexum, short-lobed wild ginger, is similar to the species but has smooth, semi-evergreen leaves and longer, more slender rhizomes.

Other Species

Some other species that are hardy in parts of the Upper Midwest and occasionally available include:

  • A. arifolium (Hexastylis arifolius*, or evergreen wild ginger) is a North American native with triangular, dark blue-green leaves patterned with gray or silver. Zone 4 or 5.
  • A. caudatum, another native species with large, light green, heart shaped leaves. Slow growing. Zone 4.
  • A. shuttleworthii (H. shuttleworthii*) has big, semi-evergreen dark green leaves with silver patterning. The variety ‘Carolina Silver’ has slightly arrow shaped leaves that are widely marked with silvery-cream. A. shuttleworthii var. harperi ‘Velvet Queen’ is a relatively small plant with rounded leaves attractively marked with silver mottling. ‘Callaway’ is a slow, mat-forming version with mottled leaves. ‘Eco Medallion’ is a silvery selection with compact growth. Zone 5.
  • A. speciosum comes from a very limited area of Alabama and has large, variably-mottled, arrow shaped leaves form tight tufted clumps. Zone 5.
  • A. splendens is an Asian evergreen species with large arrowhead shaped leaves splashed with vivid silver markings. Zone 5.
  • A. virginicum (H. virginica*) is a more prostrate type, with round to heart-shaped green leaves, each uniquely mottled with silver. Zone 5.

* Some taxonomists have placed the evergreen species in the genus Hexastylis.

Culture & Maintenance

Wild ginger makes a good ground cover in shade.

Wild ginger makes a good groundcover in a shady border or woodland garden. Plant individual plants 12 to 24 inches apart in groups to eventually form a carpet in the area. Most species tolerate fairly dense shade. They can also be grown in partial shade, although the leaves may burn in hot summers. The plants prefer moist, well-drained soil, but will tolerate clay soil.

Wild ginger can be divided by cutting the thick rhizomes which grow very close to the soil surface. Early spring is the best time for division, but the tough plants can be moved at other times of the year – although this will slow establishment. Plants can also be grown from seed, which ripens in mid-late summer. Sow the seed on the surface of pots, barely covering, and sink the pots in the ground to leave outside for the winter. The seeds should germinate the following spring.

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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Environmental Studies

Physical characteristics

Leaf: Wild Ginger has kidney shaped leaves that closely covers the forest floor where it is abundant. This plant grows on average 6” to 12” tall with branches at ground level that have two basal leaves, which are about 3” long and 4” wide. The leaf can be distinguished by its orbicular shaped with smooth margins and a deep notch at the base.

Flower | Seeds: Unlike most plants, the leaves of Wild Ginger completely cover its beautiful flower. Underneath the dark green leaves are small flowers that are dark red or purple-brown on a short stem. The flower is in full bloom from April to June. Ants disperse seeds by carrying off the edible seed appendages of the flower.

“As a rule, the one thing that a plant flaunts before all the world is a flower, but Wild Ginger reverses this, hides its blossom and instead of seeking sunlight puts it in the shade, almost in the dark” (Adelman, 2011).

Shape: Wild Ginger is found as a ground cover with kidney-shaped leaves.

Stem: The stem is pubescent.

Ecological characteristics

Wild Ginger is a native plant to the Chicago region and many others. It comes from the Aristolochiaceae family. The Aristolochiaceae family around 460 different species and 7 genera around the world, of which three are in North America (Aristolochia, Asarum and Hexastylis). Asarum canadense is commonly found in floodplain woods but also can be found along ravines and slopes. This species is native to most areas in Illinois but also to most states east of North Dakota and in Eastern Canada.

The members of this family are low-growing dicot plants, meaning the plant contains an angiosperm with two seed leaves. Other characteristics of this family include that the flowers are either regular or irregular with 12 stamens, 0 petals, and an inferior ovary.

Climate:

This species flourishes in wooded areas with light shade and moist to slightly dry conditions. Rich and loamy soil is good for rhizome activity. Rhizomes help spread Wild Ginger slowly among wooded forests.

Asarum Canadense Distribution

Importance to the ecosystem

Wild Ginger is a key component to woodland habitats because once it is established, it is a hardy plant which discourages non-native species from being able to take over the habitat. However, non-native species like European Buckthorn can take over a habitat, thus destroying the forest canopy which causes many understory species like Wild Ginger to recieve no sunlight.

Flies and beetles are attracted to the dark red flowers of the Wild Ginger, acting as their key pollinating agents. Ants are attracted to the appendages and they help with seed dispersal. Ants enjoy the elaiosomes on the seed but leaves the seeds to germinate and spread the species underground.

Relationship with other species

Predators: Many species in the Artisolochiaceae are toxic to mammalian herbivores, thus protecting this plant from most predators.

Humans: Wild Ginger has been used in oriental cooking as a spice or a digestive stimulant to relieve stomach aches. Native American woman also made tea of the root for a contraceptive. Also, the plant contains potent volatile oils that are used in oil medicine. This plant was also used to treat wounds and it was found later that it has two antibiotic compounds.

Disease: This plant has little to no diseases. Slugs and snails can sometimes cause problems but rarely.

Other interesting facts

  • This plant was named for its aromatic rhizomes which give off a ginger-like flavor.

  • Flies escape the cold by hiding under the Wild Ginger canopy of leaves.
  • Early Euro-american settlers used Wild Ginger in sugar water to make syrup for their pancakes. However, this is not advised today because Wild Ginger contain poisonous compounds.

http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/asarum_canadense.shtml

http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/woodland/plants/wild_ginger.htm

http://dnr.state.il.us/education/classrm/ForYourGardenFeb11.htm

Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel, 1996

Plants of the Chicago Region by Floyd Swink & Gerould Wilhelm, 1994

The Midwestern Native Garden by Charlotte Adelman & Bernard Schwartz, 2011

Page drafted by Maren Alexander

Caring For Wild Ginger: How To Grow Wild Ginger Plants

Found throughout the world, but primarily in the shady woods of Asia and North America, wild ginger is a perennial not related to the culinary ginger, Zingiber officinale. There are a wide variety of species and cultivars to choose from, making the question, “Can you grow ginger plants in the wild?” an easy and emphatic “yes.”

Ginger Plants in the Wild Backyard Garden

Wild ginger plants (Asarum and Hexastylis species) are 6 to 10 inches tall with a spreading habit of 12 to 24 inches, depending on the variety. Wild ginger plants tend to grow moderately slowly and are non-invasive with evergreen, kidney-shaped or heart-shaped leaves. Versatile and easily grown, growing wild ginger is an excellent choice in a woodland garden, as a shade ground cover or mass plantings.

Ginger plants in the wild have interesting, although not particularly lovely, spring blooms (April through May) that are hidden at the base of the plant among the stems. These flowers are about an inch long, shaped like an urn, and are pollinated by ground insects such as ants.

Is Wild Ginger Edible?

Although not the same as culinary ginger, most wild ginger plants can be eaten, and as their common name suggests, have a similar spicy, ginger-like aroma. The fleshy root (rhizome) and leaves of most wild ginger plants can be substituted in many Asian cuisines; however, some forms of wild ginger have an emetic property, so care should be taken when selecting and ingesting.

Caring for Wild Ginger

Caring for wild ginger requires full to partial shade, as the plant will burn in full sun. Wild ginger prefers acidic, humus-rich, well-drained yet moist soil for lush plants.

Ginger plants in the wild spread via rhizomes and can be easily divided in the early spring by slicing through the surface-growing rhizomes. Wild ginger may also be propagated by seed, although patience is definitely a virtue here as the wild ginger plant takes two years to germinate!

Grow wild ginger plant under trees and in front of taller plants in shaded areas to create a low maintenance, naturalistic landscape. One issue that might arise from these generally moist areas of the garden is damage to plants as the result of snails or slugs, especially in the early spring. The signs of damage on wild ginger plants will be big, irregular holes in foliage and slimy mucus trails. To battle against this prominent damage, remove mulch and leaf detritus near the plants and spread diatomaceous earth around the plants. If you aren’t squeamish, look for slugs a few hours after dark using a flashlight and remove them by hand picking or create a trap of shallow, beer-filled containers placed in a hole in the soil with the rim level to the soil.

Varieties of Wild Ginger Plant

Native to eastern North America, the Canadian wild ginger is an example of a wild ginger variety that has historically been eaten. Early settlers used this Asarum canadense fresh or dried as a substitute for culinary ginger, although they were probably ingesting it more for its medicinal uses rather than in a gingered chicken stir fry. The roots of this plant were eaten fresh, dried or candied as an expectorant and were even used as a contraceptive tea by Native Americans. Caution should be taken with this wild ginger however, as it may cause skin rashes in some people.

Just as the Canadian wild ginger may cause skin rashes, the European ginger (Asarum europeaum) acts as an emetic, so its ingestion should be avoided altogether. This European native is an attractive evergreen species which, as well as the Canadian species, is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 7 or 8.

A variegated variety, the Mottled wild ginger (Asarum shuttleworthii) is a less hardy (zones 5 to 8) plant native to Virginia and Georgia. This wild ginger and some other species are now in the genus Hexastylis, which include ‘Callaway,’ a slow, matted ginger with mottled foliage and ‘Eco Medallion,’ a silver-leaved compact wild ginger plant. Also counted among this genus are larger types ‘Eco Choice’ and ‘Eco Red Giant.’

Wild Ginger Seeds

Sowing: To break this seed’s dormancy, mix it with moist sand and store it in an 80 degrees F location for 60-90 days, followed by 60-90 days in the refrigerator. For fall planting, only the warm period is needed since the winter will provide the necessary cool period. Direct sow the treated seed in spring, sowing the seeds just below the surface and keeping the soil moist until germination. If the soil dries out, germination will be greatly reduced or delayed.

Growing: This plant prefers moist but well drained soil and shade. It grows very slowly, though once established it is a hardy and low maintenance plant. Over time, it spreads by rhizomes and will form a colony; rooted cuttings from mature plants will produce new plants fairly quickly. Though it tolerates some drought, it grows best if watered occasionally. A mulch of leaves will help conserve moisture and improve the soil. This plant makes an excellent low ground cover for woodland or shaded areas. The foliage attracts butterflies, especially the Pipevine Swallowtail; it also resists deer.

Harvesting: This plant should not be used internally, since it contains substances that can be poisonous. The leaves can be irritating to the skin.

Seed Saving: The oval gray seeds will form in the base of the flower, after it has wilted and become hidden under the leaves. Remove the wilted flower heads and open them to find the seeds. Plant them immediately, or store them in moist sand in the refrigerator until planting.

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