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Underground rhizomes can develop a massive colony of wild ginger.

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An understory groundcover, wild ginger flowers from the base of the plant. Photo: Bill Petersen.

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Individual plants have two, heart-shaped leaves, about six inches wide. Photo: SymbioticService San Diego.

By Alyssa Abaloz
This week’s native plant is Wild Ginger, or Asarum canadense.
 
An herb found in much of eastern North America, Wild Ginger is an herbaceous ground cover from the birthwort family.
Also known as Canadian Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense enjoys the cooler climates of zones 4 to 6. This perennial prefers consistently moist soils and partial to full shade, conditions often achieved in the understories of eastern woodlands and shady landscapes.
 
The plant’s two velvety, heart-shaped leaves barely reach 12 inches in height, but underground rhizomes can assist in rapid spreading in the garden. An established colony of wild ginger can expand six to eight inches every year!
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Asarum canadense range map.
USDA PLANTS Database.

Bloom time for the wild ginger’s brownish-purple wildflowers is early spring, April through May. An easy one to miss on a casual hike, the wild ginger’s flowers bloom from the base of the plant, often hidden by the plant’s wide leaves.
“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, the 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. Nevertheless 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.” said the US Forest service in their Plant of the Week series.
 
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Flowering wild ginger in Perrot State Park. Photo: Bill Petersen.

Dried versions of the wild ginger’s root have historically been used for spice as well as wound treatment. Two different antibiotics naturally occur in the roots, alongside poisonous compounds that scientists do not recommend ingesting.
A cluster of wild ginger is growing near the Reader Center entrance at the arb. Stop by in the spring to see the blooms!
 
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Wild ginger growing near the Reader Center. Photo: Michele Yanga.

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