Roark: Wild Ginger

Published 3:49 pm Friday, April 26, 2024

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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 widespread.

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, and if you scratch around under the leaves from April to May you will find a brownish purple flower with three petals. If you break off a piece of the rhizome you will get a strong smell of ginger. 

A flower laying on the ground under leaves seems at first to be a bad idea for pollination purposes. But flies 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 and enter it, becoming coated with pollen. They are slow learners and will repeat this scenario in other ginger flowers and thus successfully pollinate them. Ants and other crawling insects also are pollinators.

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Early colonists didn’t have access to commercially grown ginger grown in Jamaica, and so  used the roots and rhizomes of the native wild ginger as a substitute for cakes and cookies. The root has also been used medicinally as an expectorant (helps remove mucus from the respiratory tract), an antiseptic, and a tonic (stimulates muscle tone).  A tea made from the roots was used to relieve stomach gas.  Some recent medical studies suggest that the root of wild ginger contains two potent antibiotics, but the plant should not be used in high amounts because it 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.   

Steve Roark is a volunteer at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.