Wild About Ginger!

From March through May, spring provides us a parade of beautiful, delicate woodland wildflowers. Some bloom for almost the entire span of that time, others may only bloom for a few days. These plants are adapted to the wild temperature swings, varying forms of precipitation from rain to snow, and have evolved ways to propagate.

The bright green leaves of a patch of wild ginger. The leaves are shaped like hearts.
You may walk by wild ginger patches like this one without even realizing it. (Photo: Amy Roell)

One such spring wildflower is wild ginger (Genus: Asarum). To me, the most notable feature of the plant is its heart-shaped leaves. They tend to grow in clumps and you might even pass right by them without giving them much of a thought because the blossom is underneath the leaves, at the base of paired stalks, laying on the ground. This is quite different from most plants that bloom. Typically, most blooming plants want their flowering part to be raised up to catch the attention of flying insects and sometimes even birds. But, wild ginger is attracting ground insects like beetles and newly emerging flies that feast on dead, rotting carcasses of animals. The color and ‘scent’ of the wild ginger blossom mimic these critters’ typical food source.

The bloom of a wild ginger plant. It is maroon in color, hidden under the green leaves of the plant, closed to rocks and soil.
Because it attracts ground insects, the blossom of wild ginger is underneath its leaves. (Photo: Amy Roell)

According to Jack Sanders, author of “The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore and History,” when insects enter the tube-like flower of wild ginger, they eat some of the pollen. Pollen then gets stuck to their bodies, which they carry to the next blossom. The tube-shaped flowers also provide some protection from the cold winds of spring, as it’s not unusual for an insect to take refuge inside for a bit.

The seeds that are formed once the wild ginger plant has been fertilized have oily appendages that ants find to be very tasty. Ants will carry the seeds back to their underground nests, eat the tasty appendage (called and elaiosome). Once they are done munching on that, they discard the seed, which ‘plants it.’

Green, heart-shaped leaves of a wild ginger plant shoot out from the ground.
This wild ginger blossom isn’t quite ready to bloom. (Photo: Amy Roell)

Found throughout the eastern half of the United States, wild ginger can be found in shady, moist, deciduous forests and bloom typically in April and last until mid-May around our area. The leaves appear a bit earlier in March. The Pin Oak Trail at Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve is an excellent trail to spy wild ginger growing along the forest floor.

This plant is not the same one used as a spice for flavoring food. Although many different cultures have used ginger for various things including food in the past, scientists have found that the plant contains poisonous compounds and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning in 2001 against using it. It’s best for us to admire wild ginger’s beauty and the adaptations it has developed!

Amy Roell
Director of Programming