Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Looking for a ground cover for a shady spot that is not the usual ivy or pachysandra? How about wild ginger? It’s a native plant that is well suited to our North American gardens. And it is deer resistant if deer are a problem in your area.
What is Wild Ginger?
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a perennial plant that is native to Eastern North America from Canada to the Southern United States except Florida. It is hardy in zones 2 – 8. There is also a smaller wild ginger, European wild ginger (A. europaeum,) that is commonly grown here in the US but it is not native and not as hardy as our own wild ginger. It is only hardy in zones 4 – 7.
Wild ginger grows in deciduous forests in clumps. The plants grow to 6 – 8 inches tall with glossy green leaves that are shaped like hearts.
The flowers are seldom seen because they grow under the leaves, close to the ground. They are red or dark brown and shaped like bells. Bloom time is April – June. They are pollinated by ants and other small insects that crawl inside of them, rather than fly into them because they are so close to the ground.
It is thought that the flowers evolved as a food source for small carrion flies that emerge from their winter hibernation in the ground looking for the carcasses of animals that died during the winter to feast on. The color of the flowers resembles the color of the bodies of dead animals.
Another theory is that the flowers provide a place for early spring insects to warm up when they crawl inside.
Either way, the insects also dine on the pollen, some of which attaches to their bodies and is carried to the next wild ginger flower that the insect visits.
The seeds of the wild ginger are also interesting. They have an appendage called an elaiosome which attracts ants who consider it a delicacy. The ants take the seeds from the plants and carry them back to their underground nests where the entire colony feasts on the elaiosomes but leave the rest of the seed alone. The seeds then germinate later.
The elaiosome is thought to have developed as a way to prevent seed eating animals from consuming the seeds. The ants essentially harvest and “plant” the seeds instead.
Is Wild Ginger Edible?
Although it is not related to true ginger (Zingiber officinale), the root of the wild ginger does have a mild ginger flavor. Native Americans taught the European colonists how to harvest, dry and grind the root for use as a spice. The colonists also boiled the root in sugar water to make a sort of candied ginger. The leftover sugar water, now flavored with ginger, was then boiled down to a syrup for use on pancakes and other foods.
Before you try this, you should be aware that wild ginger root contains aristolochic acid and asarone both of which are carcinogenic.
What are the Medicinal Uses of Wild Ginger?
Native Americans had many medicinal uses for the root of the wild ginger. They used it to treat common ailments such as coughs, colds, sore throats and digestive issues. They also used it to treat more serious illness such as convulsions, dysentery, typhus and scarlet fever.
The most common use was in poultices, something they also taught to the European colonists. Poultices were used to heal wounds. Modern science has discovered that the root contains two antibiotic compounds which confirms the knowledge of the Native Americans that wild ginger root can prevent infection and heal wounds.
How to Grow Wild Ginger
As tempting as it is to just go off into the woods and dig up some wild ginger to plant in your garden, it’s not a good idea and may even be illegal in your state. Many of our native plants are endangered due to habitat loss as more and more people build homes farther and farther away from cities.
Always purchase native plants from local nurseries that specialize in them. They grow the plants themselves in their own greenhouses or sustainably harvest the plants from a carefully maintained local wild population.
Wild ginger grows in the woods, so plant them in a shady part of your yard or under a tree. They will grow fine in full shade and tolerate partial shade although their leaves may develop sun scald if they are getting too much sun. They grow best in moist, rich soil that is slightly acidic, pH 5.0 – 6.0.
Plant them 12 – 24 inches apart in groups. The groups will grow and expand at a rate of 6 to 8 inches per year to eventually become a solid carpet of plants.
Water well after planting. After that you will not need to water your plants unless there is a period of drought. There is no need to fertilize these plants. Native plants are adapted to live in our growing conditions.
The foliage will die back in the fall. Do not remove it until the following spring. It is protecting the buds where the plants will grow from the cold winter weather.
How to Divide Wild Ginger
Although wild ginger only spreads very slowly, you may want to divide your clumps, especially if you want to share some with a fellow gardener. Division is best done in the spring before the plants show signs of growth. You can also divide them in the fall after they have gone dormant for the winter.
The rhizomes grow close to the surface of the soil so they are easy to dig up with just a garden fork. Then use a sharp knife to cut the rhizomes into pieces making sure that each piece has at least bud where the plant grows from, preferably 2 or more buds.
Replant your divisions in a shady spot or under a tree, 12 – 24 inches apart.
© 2020 Caren White
Caren White (author) on November 21, 2020:
You're welcome! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 20, 2020:
Thanks for broadening my base of knowledge when it comes to plants. It looks like a nice groundcover for shaded areas.