Plant of the Week
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.