University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science

News Article

Perennial Plant Feature--Wild Ginger

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

 
The Wild Gingers (genus Asarum) are excellent perennials to mass in shady or wooded areas for groundcovers. Given moist, well-drained soil in part to full shade, they are low maintenance.

Wild Gingers are six to 10 inches tall and spread 12 to 24 inches wide, depending on the species. With slow to moderate growth, they are not aggressive or invasive. Leaves are generally evergreen, and usually either kidney-shaped (reniform) or heart-shaped (cordate).

The spring flowers are interesting but not particularly attractive. Hidden at the base of the plant, from where the leaf stems arise, the flowers are about one inch long and urn-shaped. Being hidden from flying insects, they are pollinated by ground-loving insects.

The common name of these plants comes from the fact that the leaves and roots (actually rhizomes) smell like ginger. Culinary ginger, however, is a different species (Zingiber officinale). The Canadian Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) was eaten by early settlers as a ginger substitute. The leaves of this species are not evergreen, but deciduous. The settlers ate them fresh or dried. Roots were eaten fresh (crushed), dried (powdered), or candied.

Medicinally, the Canadian Wild Ginger, has been used in various means, including as an expectorant. It was used as a contraceptive tea by the Indians, relating to the common name of the family Birthwort (Aristolochiaceae). This plant can cause skin rashes in some people, and the closely related European Ginger is an emetic, so care should be taken before eating just any Wild Ginger.

While the Canadian Wild Ginger is native to eastern North America, the European Wild Ginger (Asarum europeaum) is native to Europe as its name indicates. This species is evergreen, and with its shiny, kidney-shaped leaves is very attractive in the garden. Both these species are hardy in zones 4 through 7 or 8.

Another species is native from Virginia to Georgia--the Mottled Wild Ginger (Asarum shuttleworthii)--and so is less hardy (zones 5 to 8). As its name indicates, this species has variously mottled foliage. Some taxonomists have now placed this species, and other evergreen gingers, in the genus Hexastylis.

There are not many cultivars (cultivated varieties or forms) in this genus. Shuttleworthii includes 'Callaway,' a slow, mat-forming version with mottled leaves, and 'Eco Medallion,' a silvery version with compact growth. Candense includes 'Eco Choice,' which is denser than the species, and 'Eco Red Giant,' which is larger than the species.

For more details on Wild Gingers, as well as on many other choice perennials, check out Perry's Perennial Pages (http://www.uvm.edu/~pass/perry/) on the Internet.


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