Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a plant of many surprises—also many names. It is commonly called woodland ginger, Canada ginger, snakeroot, colic root, coltsfoot, namepin and sturgeon potato.
In the garden or the wild it seems unassuming, but take a closer look: Its fuzzy, bright green foliage emerges in pairs of folded leaves in early to mid-spring. Delicate, soft hairs cover the stalks and the undersides of the leaves, with the appearance of a plush fleece fabric. Once unfurled, the leaves are heart- or kidney-shaped, with pointed or rounded tips and deep clefts at the base.
Hidden under the attractive foliage of this stemless plant is a small brown to burgundy, tubular, bowl-shaped flower that tends to face downward. The outside of the tube is covered in hairs similar to the foliage and the stems. You’ll miss these diminutive blooms just walking by the plants because the flowers usually are hidden by the larger foliage.
Pollinators see them, however. Both the color and the scent of the blooms attract early spring gnats, flies and beetles. To them, the flowers look and smell like rotten meat, although the scent isn’t strong to most humans. A. canadense is a host plant for the pipevine swallowtail butterfly, a rare stray in Minnesota. Even without pollinators, however, wild ginger produces seeds because it has the ability to self-pollinate.
Wild ginger has a lot going for it, and it offers benefits for its garden companions and its human gardeners, as well. Just a few strategically placed plants can form colonies over time. It’s not a bully, but it is taller and thicker than many non-native, invasive ground covers, which makes it an excellent choice for battling these thugs in the landscape. In addition, the foliage generally persists through early autumn; it’s even semi-evergreen with adequate moisture in warmer climates.
An added bonus: This dense ground cover plant is rabbit- and deer-resistant. Unfortunately, most above-ground parts of the plant are toxic to humans, as well, although early Americans used the roots for spicing and medicinal purposes.
Because of its persistence, wild ginger is a great companion to other woodland plants—particularly spring ephemerals that bloom and quickly fade, while wild ginger foliage persists throughout the growing season. Great companions include bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), great white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), and false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum), among many others.
Wild ginger thrives in deciduous forests—sites with winter and early spring sun and summer shade. It really takes off during wet years, with adequate drainage, but it may struggle and/or enter dormancy early during drought years. It prefers neutral to acidic soils, but it’s not picky about its soil consistency— growing well in sand, loam or clay, as long as it gets adequate moisture and drains well.
Note: The foliage of wild ginger can cause skin irritation for some people, so consider wearing gloves when planting. Place potted nursery plants in partial to near full shade locations under the canopy of deciduous trees. Wild ginger generally doesn’t thrive in coniferous woodlands. It spreads by underground rhizomes or stolons; a few plants spaced widely in a small area can form a pleasant ground cover mat within a few years.
Wild ginger can also be grown from seed, but it can take several years to establish. Transplants and cuttings planted in spring or fall should establish easily in a woodland or a woodland edge.