Canada Wild Ginger is a dense groundcover that spreads by rhizomes in the rich moist understory of Wisconsin woodlands. This humble but unique native has been used for hundreds of years by Native American and Canadian tribes. A versatile addition to any shade garden, Canada Wild Ginger’s simple beauty is sure to capture your heart. Spoiler alert: It has heart-shaped leaves.
May also be known as Wild Ginger, Common Wild Ginger, Canadian Wild Ginger, or Snake Root.
Tough, hardy Canada Wild Ginger is a beautiful dense groundcover for shady areas. Its native habitat is the shaded floor of rich woodland forests. Take a glance at the ground next time you are on a forest hike anywhere in southern Wisconsin, and you’ll likely find patches of Wild Ginger. It is easily identified by its rather large, sometimes hairy, heart-shaped leaves.
Canadian Wild Ginger colonizes through rhizomes and will spread six to eight inches per year once it is established (typically after the 2nd year). The dark green heart-shaped leaves can grow up to 6 inches in diameter and form attractive clumps in dense or dappled shade. Perfect for a shady border, woodland garden, rain garden, naturalized area, or any moist shaded area, Canada Wild Ginger is a Wisconsin native with excellent versatility in the landscape.
Although the large downy leaves are the most noticeable feature, a glimpse beneath the foliage provides some delightful, unexpected attributes. Canada Wild Ginger has very pubescent (hairy) stems and unique colorful (also hairy) flowers. The small bell-shaped flower is usually a dark purplish brown with a creamy color inside. Three acuminate sepals form a triangle with reflexed tips. It has been called ‘little jug’ or ‘little pitcher’ due to a resemblance to these vessels. Pollinators such as ants and small flies take refuge within this unique, hidden, low-to-the-ground inflorescence.
As a Wisconsin native plant, Canada Wild Ginger contributes to the forest ecosystem. It provides nourishment for ants and other insect pollinators, an important component of the woodland food chain. Contributing to the richness of the soil in which it thrives, its leaves keep the forest floor cool and damp, decomposing into a rich organic matter when their season comes to an end.
Some sources cite Asarum canadense as a host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly (Battus philenor) but this has not been observed in its entire native range. Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly larvae feed on plants of the genus Aristolachia due to the presence of aristolochic acid in the plant, which deters predators from eating them. Scarce references to Canada Wild Ginger as a host plant may indicate the larvae use these plants as a food source only when true Aristolachia are in short supply.
Canada Wild Ginger is a tough plant that requires little to no maintenance. This strong performer tolerates wet soil, heavy shade, erosion, and even deer browsing. It prefers acid to neutral soil pH, requires consistent moisture, and thrives in shade. It is advisable to water during drought, especially if plants are newly established or in an area that gets any sunlight.
Remember that Wild Ginger takes time to establish, so it may appear not to be thriving at first. Two to three seasons after it is planted it will be settled into its new home and burst forth into gorgeous patches of lush ground cover, spreading 6-8 inches per year.
Rhizomes of well-established plants can be dug up and separated if desired, to propagate within your garden. The best time of year for this is early spring or fall.
Foliage may occasionally be damaged by slugs and snails. Leaves will scorch in summer sun and heat – keep this in mind if planting in partial shade areas. Avoid hotter locations in the garden.
The genus Asarum is derived from Latin and Greek. The specific epithet canadense literally translates to “of Canada” but also refers to the northeastern U.S. in botanical taxonomy.
Canada Wild Ginger flower’s unique characteristics have an interesting evolutionary tale. They sit low to the ground and resemble the colors of a rotting carcass (if you use your creative brain, or maybe your insect brain). The purpose of this coloring, according to some experts, is to attract pollinating flies that overwinter in the soil as they emerge in spring looking for nourishment. The hairy bell-shaped hollow also provides them with shelter from the early spring cold.
Other experts disagree with the theory that insects pollinate Canada Wild Ginger, and posit that this curiously ground-hugging flower is primarily self-pollinated. For those interested in the in-depth study, check it out here: Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover: The Curious Case of Wild Ginger Pollination (richmond.edu PDF).
Have you ever seen a seedpod on a plant with an odd-looking ‘growth’ appearing to stick out of it? This is called an elaiosome. It translates from the Greek to ‘oil + some’, and is rich in lipids, also referred to as an ‘oil body’. Wild Ginger seed has an elaiosome that attracts ants. Ants carry the seeds back to their colonies for larvae to feast on this oil-rich body, then play an integral role in populating the forest by scattering the seeds in rich organic soil created by their waste.
Leaf lore abounds on this fascinating woodland perennial. But wait… there’s more!
Canada Wild Ginger is not related to culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale), but it smells and tastes similar. It was used by Native Americans and early North American settlers as a flavoring and was also made into candy, a byproduct of which was tasty syrup. There are records of extensive medicinal uses by at least twelve different Native American tribes. The versatile Wild Ginger root was used for fevers, coughs, colds, convulsions, as a stimulant, digestive aid, and was reported to amplify the effects of other medicinal herbal preparations, among other uses. It contains antibacterial agents and was also used to make spoiled meat safe for consumption. (source: BRIT – Native American Ethnobotany Database)
The compound aristolochic acid gives Canada Wild Ginger its medicinal properties. According to the FDA, aristolochic acid can cause kidney damage. Due to this, the FDA does not advise consuming Canada Wild Ginger.
Canada Wild Ginger will be right at home with its native neighbors from the understory. Plant with Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Trillium to continue a lush green display after these ephemerals have finished flowering.
Add some Maidenhair Fern, Sensitive Fern, or Fox Sedge for texture, and perhaps Giant Solomon’s Seal, Variegated Solomon’s Seal, or a Lungwort cultivar for a splash of color (Trevi Fountain, Twinkle Toes, Pretty in Pink).
Use Wild Ginger as a groundcover in any woodland garden, restoration project, or naturalized area with consistently moist, rich soil. It is often found near Speckled Alder, Pagoda Dogwood, Eastern Wahoo, and American Elderberry in its native habitat. Tamarack, Sweet Gale, Swamp Fly Honeysuckle, Glossy Black Chokeberry, Redosier Dogwood, Silky Dogwood, and Buttonbush are some Wisconsin native shrubs that grow well in moist to wet areas.
For a more traditional garden bed, Wild Ginger’s simple beauty works in almost any moist shade area. The heart-shaped, silvery leaves of Brunnera cultivars Jack Frost or Silver Heart complement green heart-shaped Canada Wild Ginger foliage perfectly. For a colorful fine-textured contrast, try Japanese Painted Fern or Evergold Sedge. Layer in Sun King Aralia or Hillside Black Beauty Snakeroot towards the back of the bed to add graceful height and a pop of color. Twinkle Toes Lungwort displays lacey blue and pink blooms in spring, while Tiny Tortuga Turtlehead pops pink flowers in late summer. Any medium-sized Hosta will blend beautifully with Wild Ginger – just be sure to leave the slower growing ginger enough space to spread.