Wild Ginger

wild-ginger

Flower Description:
Single, brownish-green to maroon tube-shaped flower at base of stem. Flower is 1-2” long with 3 pointed lobes located between leafstalks.

Fruit:
Half-inch long, six-celled round capsule containing many seeds.

Leaf Description:
Two large (3-6” wide) heart-shaped leaves. Leaves are soft and velvety due to hairs. Leaves are notched where stalk attaches.

Common Names:

Asarabacca, Canada Ginger, Cat’s Foot, Colic Root, Coltsfoot, Heart-Leaf, Indian Ginger, Namepin, Snakeroot, Sturgeon Potato

Established Plant Colonies in Norway Valley

wild-ginger-map

Family: Birthwort (Aristolochiaceae)
Height: To 12” (30 cm)
Flowering: April – May
Habitat: Moist, Shady, Deciduous Woods
Cycle: Perennial
Toxicity: Linked to Cancer

Etymology

Wild Ginger is not related to the commercial species that is acquired from a different plant (Zingiber officinale) used in traditional cooking today. Its common name however is derived from its use in pioneer and Native American cooking. When true ginger was scarce, dried and crushed rootstocks were used by native people as a ginger substitute18. Even today Wild Ginger has not lost its appeal. Wild plant enthusiasts have created several recipes involving Wild Ginger as a spice substitute. For instance, the long horizontal rootstocks of the plant can be boiled down in a rich sugary syrup to make Wild Ginger candy.

The word ginger can be traced back to the Sanskrit word smgavera meaning horn body, which references the shape, texture, and arrangement of both true and wild ginger. It is the ability of this wildflower to mimic true ginger in almost every way that earned Wild Ginger its common name.

The scientific name Asarum canadense is more obscure. Asarum is a Latin word whose original meaning is unknown. Dictionaries have defined the word as “wild foalsfoot” or “wild spikenard”, which may refer to the shape of the plant or its foliage. Canadense means “of Canada”, which has led to another common name for the plant: Canada Ginger.

Common Names

Cat’s Foot, Coltsfoot, Heart-Leaf: Refers to the shape of the leaves.
Namepin: A name given by the Chippewa, which translates to “sturgeon plant”. Sturgeon likely refers to the color of the flower (olive to deep red) that imitates the coloring of a sturgeon.
Snakeroot: Refers to the ‘snakelike’ roots that creep beneath the ground.
Sturgeon Potato: Meskwaki Indians used Wild Ginger to flavor Mud Catfish.

Pollination

The flowers of Wild Ginger are located at the base of the plant well below the leaves. Both the color and scent of the flower attracts its pollinators: gnats and flies. The flower emerges in early spring when flies and gnats are searching for thawing carcasses of dead animals to consume. The dull red color of the flower and stench of rotting meat that it produces perfectly mimics dead carrion. These adaptations draw the insects to the cup-like flower. Once inside, the flower provides shelter for the insects which in turn pick up pollen to pass on to other plants. This form of symbiosis increases Wild Ginger’s chances for fertilization.

Like many spring wildflowers, the seeds of Wild Ginger are spread by ants which are attracted to the seeds’ fleshy elaisosome appendages. Ants will carry the seeds to their nests where they eat the elaisosomes and discard the seed proper. The seed is protected by the underground ant nest and grows in a rich medium created by ant waste. Large colonies of Wild Ginger are developed by the ants and maintained by the superficial, spreading rhizomes of the plant.

Medical Uses

Wild Ginger has been employed by various Native American tribes for a variety of purposes. When infused in a tea, Wild Ginger was used as a contraceptive. The plant was a popular carminative and used to relieve generally upset stomachs. It was also used to treat intestinal ailments, and relieve stomach aches and cramps, as well as indigestion. Wild Ginger was used to treat colic as well, leading to another of its many common names: Colic Root.

Pioneers used Wild Ginger to treat open wounds. The roots contain antibiotic substances that when chopped up on a plantain leaf, could serve as a poultice used to treat inflammations of the skin. This remedy was apparently used by Meriweather Lewis during his exploration of the Louisiana territory in 1806. The plant was also used by pioneers to treat chest complaints and heart palpitations, promote sweating to break a fever, as a tonic, and as an appetite stimulant.

Wild Ginger contains aristolochic acid, which was once believed to be effective in treating tumors. Aristolochic acid was a main component in many dietary supplements and over-the-counter medicines until the FDA declared it to be carcinogenic and nephrotoxic. It is still occasionally included in herbal weight loss remedies though it may cause serious diseases. Studies have linked aristolochic acid to both cancer and severe renal diseases.

Other Uses

Some tribes believed Wild Ginger eliminated danger of poisoning when eating an animal that had died of unknown causes. In some ways, this claim is valid. Wild Ginger roots contain antibacterial agents, active against a broad spectrum of bacteria and fungi. This trait was recognized by early American and Canadian Indians who used the plant to season and treat food. Thus it was used as a seasoning to render food, usually freshly killed or spoiled meat, safe for consumption.