Wild Ginger
Asarum canadense reflexum
Pipevine family (Aristolochiaceae)

Description: This herbaceous perennial plant is 4-12" tall, consisting of a short stem that branches at ground level into 2 basal leaves with long petioles. The basal leaves are up to 3" long and 4" across. They are cordate-orbicular, deeply indented at the base, and have smooth margins. Their upper surface is slightly hairy and shiny. From the axil of a pair of leaves, develops a single reddish brown flower on a short stalk. Both the flowering stalk and the petioles of the leaves are covered with white hairs that are long and twisted. The flower is about 1" across; it has 3 calyx lobes that are triangular in shape and curl backward. The thick tubular base of calyx is divided into 6 rounded chambers (3 primary chambers, which are each divided into 2 secondary chambers). These chambers contain the ovaries, which develop into rows of seeds. The tubular base of the calyx is light reddish brown and covered with long white hairs. There is a stout column of reproductive organs at the throat of the flower, which is reddish brown like the lobes. It is surrounded by the inner surface of the calyx, which is white. The blooming period occurs from mid- to late spring, and lasts about 3 weeks. After the flowers wither away, the seed capsule splits open to release the seeds. These seeds have a fleshy appendage. The root system consists of shallow rhizomes that are fleshy and branching. This plant often forms vegetative colonies.

Cultivation: The preference is light shade and moist to slightly dry conditions. The soil should be rich and loamy, although some rocky material underneath the soil surface is acceptable.

Range & Habitat: The native Wild Ginger is a common plant that can be found in most counties of Illinois (see Distribution Map). Habitats include moist to slightly dry deciduous woodlands (both floodplain and upland), and bluffs. It often found along ravines and slopes.

Faunal Associations: The reddish brown flowers probably attract flies or beetles as pollinating agents. The seeds attract ants because of their fleshy appendages; these insects help to disperse the seeds. The toxic foliage is not eaten by mammalian herbivores.

Photographic Location: The edge of a wooded bluff at Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County, Illinois, where this plant is quite common. The foliage in the upper left corner of the photograph of the basal leaves is Dentaria laciniata (Cutleaf Toothwort).

Comments: This plant is called 'Wild Ginger' because the aromatic rhizomes have a ginger-like fragrance and flavor. Fresh or dried, they can be used as a substitute for the spice. Different varieties of Wild Ginger have been described by different authorities, which vary according to the length of the calyx lobes, and whether they are spreading or reflexed. The variety that is described here, Asarum canadense reflexum, is the most common variety of Wild Ginger in Illinois.