Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is one of my favorite plants for deeply shaded areas. Not to be confused with culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale), the wild ginger shade plant contains carcinogenic chemicals. While it’s not advisable to consume the plant, I find these native North American woodland plants to be an easy-to-grow and attractive perennial ground cover.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily call wild ginger plants a rare find, they are not routinely included in the typical shade garden. Undoubtedly, the reason many gardeners bypass native wild ginger is that it doesn’t produce showy blooms.
Instead, each native wild ginger plant produces a single flower. It grows hidden by the heart-shaped foliage at the base of the stem and has no petals. Plus, the tube-shaped flower is reddish brown, making it hard to spot even when one is searching for it.
Yet, this is one of those instances when there is more to it than meets the eye. Like other members of the birthwort family, wild ginger plants have evolved adaptive strategies for pollination and propagation. The theory is that the tube-shaped flower evolved as a place for insects to warm themselves as they emerge from the ground in early spring.
It’s also believed the “corpse-colored” flowers are designed to lure female carrion flies. As various insects move from one native wild ginger plant to another, they transport pollen. As gardeners, we often think of plant pollinators as being bees, butterflies and birds. Growing wild ginger reminds me that gardeners have a rich diversity of plant life from which to choose.
What I find even more interesting is how native wild ginger propagates. The rhizomatous roots grow close to the surface and are easily dug up and divided by humans. But I prefer to let my wild ginger plants spread the way nature intended.
You see, wild ginger seeds come equipped with an attached appendage or elaiosome, which is actually a food source that ants find highly attractive. The ants gather the seeds and take them back to their colonies underground. Once their fellow ants have consumed the elaiosome, the buried seeds are discarded. The wild ginger seeds then germinate in new places in the garden.
If you’re like me, you enjoy showing off your garden to visitors. After all, the beauty we so painstakingly create should be shared with others. But as gardeners, I also feel we have a deeper purpose as stewards of the earth. And what better way to inspire awe and appreciation for the diversity of plant life on our planet than to share interesting stories about our plants with others!