As spring arrives, plants once again emerge from the cool, moist soil. One of the most charming to unfurl its leaves is Canadian wild ginger. Native to most of the eastern half of North America, wild ginger has deep green, slightly fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves, which grow in clusters close to the ground. Each pair of wild ginger stems produces a single, small, brownish-purple flower hidden under its leaves that is said to resemble “rotting carcasses.” This characteristic, as well as the flowers’ ground-level accessibility, is attractive to flies that emerge from the ground in the spring. It’s unclear whether these flies serve as the main pollinators, but they do spread pollen from plant to plant. Another insect provides the plants a method to extend their territory in a manner employed by a number of our native spring ephemerals. A portion of the seed produces, as one source terms it, “a little oily food gift attached to the seed.”* This attachment (called an elaiosome) attracts ants, which carry the seeds to their underground nests. These ants keep the soil there loose and well-aerated, creating a perfect environment for germination, and the seeds sprout in their new location, producing a new cluster of plants.
In its native forest habitat, wild ginger thrives in colonies in moist soil beneath the shade of deciduous trees. In the home native plant garden, it makes an excellent ground cover for shady areas, keeping its foliage through the summer. It spreads by rhizomes (underground root systems) and can extend its colony six to eight inches in each direction yearly—in addition to showing up wherever its seeds have been conveyed. Unless you’re an ant, it’s difficult to grow wild ginger from seed; plants are best purchased from a reliable native plant source or dug from another gardener’s cluster.
Native Americans and early European settlers are said to have used wild ginger root as a spice, candied it as a treat, and used syrup made from the candying process as a sweetener. However, wild ginger contains small amounts of toxic compounds; scientists caution that no part of it should be eaten. It has also been used in poultices to treat wounds, and in fact, antibiotic compounds have been identified in components of the plant.
If you have a shady spot in need of some ground cover, why not consider Canadian wild ginger?
Canadian wild ginger: Asarum canadense
Goldenrods come in more than 100 different varieties, many of which are native to northern Illinois. Their fluffy, bright yellow flowers add color to the late-summer garden and attract honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, ants, beetles, moths, and butterflies. And despite a bad reputation for “causing” hayfever, they’re not guilty! The real culprit is ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod and produces a lightweight pollen easily carried by the wind. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, requiring pollinators for dispersal.
Goldenrods range from the diminutive one or two feet of the woodland varieties to the sun-loving varieties that stand on erect stems to six or eight feet tall. There is a goldenrod that will thrive in prairie, woodland, or wetland; accordingly their sun and soil requirements vary, but too much water or fertilizer may cause their long stems to flop. Some types, notably the native (despite its name) Canadian goldenrod, can be tall, weedy, and aggressive, but many varieties are more mannerly and better suited to home gardens. Bluestem goldenrod is best grown in partial sun and dry soil with some rocky content. Elm-leaved goldenrod is a shorter variety that prefers shade to semi-shade and medium-moist to dry soil. Showy goldenrod, with blooms that live up to its name, prefers dry soil and full sun. Stiff goldenrod has leaves that turn red in the fall and enjoys full sun and moist to slightly dry conditions; it is not too picky about soil type.
In some parts of the world, goldenrods are considered a sign of good luck. The leaves contain some rubber; Thomas Edison experimented with goldenrod as a material for tires, and during World War II an unsuccessful attempt was made to introduce goldenrod as a commercial rubber source. A species of goldenrod has been used in herbal medicine as a kidney tonic. Native Americans used goldenrod leaves to relieve sore throats and chewed the roots to soothe toothache.
Bluestem goldenrod: Solidago caesia
Elm-leaved goldenrod: Solidago ulmifolia
Showy goldenrod: Solidago speciosa
Stiff goldenrod: Solidago rigida
Butterflies and moths: Lepidoptera
Honeybees: Apis mellifera