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 to be used for food. The activities of these ants keep the soil 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