Photo by Melody

An Introduction to Wild Gingers

By Todd Boland (Todd_BolandApril 4, 2009
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Wild gingers are often more appreciated in the wild than in gardens but between the beauty of their foliage and the fascinating blooms of the newly introduced Asian species, the Asarums are enjoying a surge in popularity. This article will introduce you to the diversity that exists among the genus Asarum.

Gardening picture

Wild ginger or Asarum is probably more well-known by wildflower enthusiasts or hikers than by gardeners. As a forest-floor wildflower, they are common throughout eastern North America, the Pacific Northwest, much of western Europe and east Asia. In fact, of the 70 or so species, the vast majority hail from east Asia. There are 8 species in North America and only one occurs in Europe.

Asarum belong to the Aristolochiaceae family. This family comprises only 5 genera, mostly from warm temperate regions. The wild gingers themselves are generally low (under 15 cm) shade-loving species which may be deciduous or evergreen. Some authorities place the evergreen types into a separate genus called Hexastylis, but for simplicity, I'll describe them all under Asarum. The leaves are relatively large, produced either singularly or paired and are round to heart-shaped. The evergreen species are particularly treasured for their glossy textured foliage which is silver-veined or blotched on a few species. The flowers, which are produced in spring, are often hidden by the leaves and basically sit on the ground. Each flower is produced individually and have 3 petal-like sepals. While generally green to maroon in colour, they are quite interesting, albeit, sometimes malodorous. The blooms of the Asian species are particularly attractive. Plants slowly form colonies via underground rhizomes. Some, like the European A. europaeum or the American A. canadense, can be used as a ground-cover but the other species are slower to spread. The common name comes from the fact that the rhizome, when chewed, has a distinct ginger-like taste. In fact, their rhizomes can be used as a substitute for fresh ginger.

In the garden, provide these plants with dappled sunlight and a rich, organic soil that remains reasonably moist. Neutral to acidic pH seems to suit them best. They are wonderful companion plants for ferns, mayapples, woodland anemones, hepatica and jack-in-the-pulpits. Generally the Asian species are only hardy to zone 7; many of the American species are fine for zone 6 with the notable exception of A. canadense which can survive zone 2! The European species is the hardiest of the evergreen types, good to zone 4.

For foliage effect, it's hard to beat the American species native to the southeastern U.S., in particular A. arifolium, A. hartwegii, A. shuttleworthii and A. virginicum. These have evergreen leaves not unlike good variegated forms of Cyclamen hederifolium. If snow cover is guaranteed or under a good layer of leaves, these species can survive into the mildest parts of zone 5. Also with attractive foliage is the western American species A. marmoratum, but it is not reliable north of zone 7. There are also several Asian species with very attractively marked foliage. Among the best are A. splendens, A. maculatum (A. sieboldii), A. macranthum and A. magnificum. There are several others but they are difficult to find and rather expensive. These are also rated hardy to zone 7.

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Beautiful foliage from the American species A. shuttleworthii, A. arifolium and A. hartwegii

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From Asia hail some lovely species such as A. splendens (upper left), A. magnificum (upper right) and A. maculatum (bottom)

As mentioned, the flowers are considered interesting at the very least. The European wild ginger and most of the North American species have maroon-purple flowers. Some like A. caudatum have larger flaring flowers with elongated sepals, thus are a little more attractive. The real floral winners are the Asian species. Some of these are intricately veined and marbled. The best of all might be A. maximum which has relatively large flowers that appear velvety black with a white ‘eye'. Like the Asian variegated species, these florally interesting species also fetch huge prices.

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Asarum caudatum and A. canadense have flowers typical of the American species.

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Asarum europaeum has among the glossiest foliage while A. maximum has the most interesting flowers.

In my zone 5 garden, I only grow A. canadense, A. europeaum, A. arifolium and A. shuttleworthii. I only wish I could grow some of the more tender types as they are woodland plants extraordinare!

I would like to thank the following people for the use of their pictures: bonitin (A. europaeum), Andrew60 (A. maculatum), Galanthophile (A. magnificum), kennedyh (A. caudatum), kudrick (A. maximum), mgarr (A. shuttleworthii), patp (A. arifolium), scorpioangel (A. hartwegii) and sweezel (A. splendens).


  About Todd Boland  
Todd BolandI reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
mystery solved! Loligo 0 7 Apr 14, 2009 6:41 PM
Are any Asarum invasive? NathanR 3 26 Apr 7, 2009 5:20 PM
wild ginger from seed kjohnsonhoffman 1 20 Apr 7, 2009 12:39 AM
ginger trilliumhillfar 1 9 Apr 6, 2009 5:37 PM
Fasinating genus lortay 1 13 Apr 6, 2009 10:40 AM
ginger flower irisMA 2 47 Apr 5, 2009 12:56 AM
Mine are coming up Where_is_it 0 19 Apr 5, 2009 12:27 AM
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