Wild Ginger Plant Profile

Kidney shaped green leaved plants over leaf litter in woods.

Barb Barton / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

Wild ginger, Asarum canadense, is found growing throughout the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, as well as parts of Asia. Despite its name, it bears no relation to culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale). At first glance. it's not very remarkable, because the flowers are hidden beneath the leaves at the base of the plant. This unusual growth structure is believed to have evolved to help early spring insects locate the flower for food and pollinating. The brownish-mauve flowers have a distinctive bell shape with three small tips that flare out from its edges. The kidney-shaped leaves have a form and habit similar to violets, though stand more upright and are larger. In the Upper Midwest, there are a number of cultivars that have variations of color, shape and size. The European variety (Asarum europaeum) is also commonly available for gardens in the United States.

Wild ginger plants have a history of being used for food, including boiling the fleshy rhizome/root to make a sweet syrup that does taste slightly of ginger. It was used for a wide range of medicinal purposes by Native Americans and early Euro-American settlers. It also contains antibiotic compounds which make it useful for topical uses, such as poultices to treat wounds. The plant is native to shady woodlands and spreads via rhizome. They are not of interest to deer or other herbivorous mammals, but insects love this plant, including ants who carry its seeds underground for germination. Wild ginger attracts a very specific pollinator: the Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly. It has protected status in the state of Maine, where it is considered endangered.

Botanical Name Asarum Canadense
Common Name Woodland Ginger, Ginger Root, Heart Snakeroot
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 6" tall
Sun Exposure Shade
Soil Type Moist, rich
Soil pH Slightly acidic, 5.0 - 6.0
Bloom Time April - June
Flower Color Dark red
Hardiness Zones 3 to 7
Native Areas Eastern North America, Southeastern Canada
Brownish red triple petaled flower and green leaves in woodland setting.
The unusual flowers of wild ginger resemble little brown jugs and are found beneath the leaves. Peter Prehn / Flickr / CC BY​-NC-ND 2.0

How to Grow Wild Ginger

Wild ginger makes a good shady ground cover planting, especially in a woodland setting. It tends to form dense colonies in the understory of forests, and the best place to find plants to transplant is from one of these colonies. It doesn't tend to propagate well from seed and the best way to grow some in your yard is to transplant some of the rhizomes from a woodland spot. Dig in early spring as the new plants begin to emerge. If it's planted in a good spot it will spread eagerly and form dense masses. Because it thrives in moist areas, it can attract snails and slugs which may chomp on the leaves. These infestations can be prevented to some extent by clearing excess mulch and leaf detritus from the base of places. Diatomaceous earth (the exoskeletons of beetles) can be spread nearby and also help eliminate slugs and snails in a non toxic way. Beer or salt traps can also work.

Light

Found in shady areas, the plant doesn't need much sun to flourish. In fact, direct sun can cause the leaves to burn in summer. So to keep it happy, plant it in a spot with full to partial shade.

Soil

Wild ginger likes a rich, moist, slightly-acidic soil, rich with humus, similar to many other shade loving woodland plants. Organic soils are best for this nutrient-loving plant.

Water

Unless there is a drought, wild ginger needs no extra watering, as long as it's grown in suitable soil conditions. Add moisture-holding amendments that also allow good drainage, like peat moss, used coffee grounds and compost.

Temperature and Humidity

Most varieties of wild ginger are old hardy to Zone 4, so they should overwinter just fine in most temperate regions. They do need cold winter temperatures to complete their life cycle, so they won't really flourish in zones warmer than 7. Wild ginger likes moist soil and so will tolerate humidity fairly well.

Toxicity

Despite its usefulness for many healing applications, wild ginger contains a toxic compound (aristolochic acid) that makes it dangerous to consume and should not be ingested. Indeed, the kidney-shaped leaves may give a clue to its toxic effects, as it has been known to cause kidney damage when ingested. To be on the safe side, avoid ingesting wild ginger.