Favorite Flora: Wild Ginger

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense): Edible… or not?

Asarum canandense resizeBy 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.asarum canadense flower crop 2

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. Ginger mapIt 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.

Pipevine Swallowtail Jim McCormac

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.

One response to “Favorite Flora: Wild Ginger

  1. July Hays

    Just a comment about the poisonous side of the wild ginger–I grew up with the western version of Asarum canadensis, A. caudatum (seems identical to me), and tasted the root more than once. It smells nicely of ginger-lemon but tastes strongly earthy As a child I was never tempted to chew or swallow it but would sometimes carry a bit of root around in my pocket for the smell. It is not “hot” like real ginger. I suspect that herbalists are simply attributing zingibar’s qualities to this unrelated plant. Pojar & MacKinnon, in Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (the bible of NW native plants), state that coastal native tribes used the crushed leaves as a poultice (for headache, joint pains etc.) but internal use was as an emetic that would also settle the stomach. That would reinforce the idea of its mildly poisonous nature. They also used it for TB but since this disease was brought by the Europeans, you can’t count it as a true traditional medicine.

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