OUTSIDE: Wild ginger

By Steve Roark
Volunteer Naturalist, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is an interesting plant found in rich, moist, forested areas in deep hollows and drains.  East and north facing lower slopes are its favored habitat, where it can be pretty prolific

Ginger has a stem (called a rhizome) that grows low along the ground with pairs of heart shaped leaves sticking up through the leaf litter.  The leaf stems are very hairy.  If you scratch around under the leaves in the spring you may find a brownish purple flower with three petals. If you break off a piece of the rhizome it will have the strong smell like ginger.

A flower laying on the ground under leaves seems at first to be a bad idea for pollination purposes. But flies just emerging from the ground after overwintering are hungry and anxious for dead flesh to eat. Due to its dried blood color, flies will confuse the flower of wild ginger with the flesh of a dead animal laying on the ground and enter it. They end up collecting pollen on their body hair and will repeat this scenario a couple of times and successfully pollinate wild ginger.

Early colonists used the roots and rhizome as a ginger substitute for cakes and cookies. The rhizome has also been used medicinally as an expectorant (helps remove mucous from the respiratory tract), an antiseptic, and a tonic (stimulates muscle tone).  A tea made from the roots was also used to relieve stomach gas.  Some recent medical studies suggest that root of wild ginger contains two potent antibiotics, but plant should be used cautiously because it also contains toxic chemicals.

For a wild eating experience, make a candy by boiling the rhizomes until tender and then simmer in a sugar syrup.  As mentioned, dried roots can be substituted for commercial ginger.  Use caution when eating anything from the wild unless you can identify it confidently and eat only a small portion at first in case of food allergy.  A good book on wild foods is:  A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by Lee Peterson.