Scientific Name: Asarum caudatum
Common Names: Western Wild Ginger
Plant Type: Evergreen, perennial herbaceous groundcover
Environment:Redwood and mixed evergreen forests, shaded understory
Bloom: Late winter-early spring
Uses: Groundcover; containers including hanging baskets
Other: Grows best in moist, shady locations with acidic soil rich in organic matter. Slugs can be a problem.
An evergreen ground cover, western wild ginger grows in the dense shade of coast redwood and mixed evergreen forests from Santa Cruz County, California to British Columbia. It shares company with other companion plants that make up the lush redwood forest carpet including redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) and western coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus var. palmatus).
Asarum is an ancient Latin or Greek name of obscure origin, and caudatum, or tail-like, refers to the calyx lobes that elongate into three long slender tails. The reddish-brown flowers hide under the heart-shaped dark green leaves, appearing in late winter or early spring. Pollination is facilitated by, of all things, slugs which sometimes also damage the leaves. Ants, attracted to the smell of the fruit, take part in seed dispersal.
The leaves, two to four inches long and up to seven inches wide, and especially the underground stems give off a fragrance that smells much like ginger. However, this plant is not related to the culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale) that is used as a spice and herbal medicine. Although traditional and folklore references suggest the roots can be eaten, it is not advised as Asarumand other members of its family are known to contain carcinogens.
In the garden, wild ginger is an excellent choice of ground cover in shaded areas, far better than ivy as it is not invasive. It does require regular watering and prefers acidic soil rich in organic matter. Propagation is easily done by dividing the creeping stems or roots, preferably in fall or winter. For those with limited space, planting it in a large container, or even in a hanging basket works well as the leaves hang gracefully over the edges.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS:Text by Joanne Taylor and Mona Bourell. Photos by Joanne Taylor. Additional photos provided by John Wall, James Gaither and D. Cavangnaro.