Wild ginger (Asarum canadense): Edible… or not?
By Debra Knapke
The question: “Is it true that you can use it like ginger?” The answer: “well, yes and no”. This shade-loving, native perennial has a history of culinary use as a ginger substitute. The roots have been powdered and candied, but the chemistry of wild ginger is different from the true ginger (Zingiber sp.) of South Asia. Wild ginger’s flavor has been described as potent, but Dr. Art Tucker, professor emeritus of Botany at Delaware State, cautions that only the essential oil, in small amounts, has GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. This makes me reconsider my desire to taste-test the root.
The ethnobotanical record and current use for wild ginger reads like a manual in how to cure just about anything. The most common uses have included: improving digestion and appetite; curing coughs, colds, bronchitis, and sore throats, supporting the immune system and healing wounds. But, before you go experimenting, consider that most recommendations were accompanied by this caution: contains aristolochic acid which has been found to be carcinogenic and mutagenic – causing cancer and mutations, respectively.
In the garden, wild ginger is a beautiful ground cover that increases its diameter slowly; 24-30” wide in two to four years. The curious maroon flowers are under the leaves, close to the soil where they are pollinated by beetles and flies. Look for the flowers in mid-April or so. This may necessitate getting on your knees and bowing to your garden.
Wild ginger is native in 25 states in moist woodlands. In the garden this translates to well-amended soil in shade to part shade. It is tolerant of a wide range of pH, and can withstand short periods of dryness once it is established. However, wild ginger is not tolerant of flooding. Slugs and snails can be an issue, especially in wet seasons, but I have found the damage to be minimal, certainly not worth any control measures.
We all need to be aware of supporting our native insects. Wild ginger offers food to the larval stage of the gorgeous pipevine swallowtail butterfly. The caterpillar eats the leaves and thereby ingests aristolochic acid which makes it poisonous to birds. For this same reason, it is not favored by deer.
Mating pipevine swallowtails that are safe from hungry birds because of their diet of wild ginger leaves and milkweed nectar. Photo credit: Jim McCormick
Multi-functional, beautiful and low-care; what more can you ask from a plant?
To learn more about wild ginger and other rare plants, check out FloraQuest and consider signing up for the next field trip to Marblehead, Ohio, May 12-13.