Herb to Know: Wild Ginger


| December/January 1995



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• Asarum canadense
• (ASS-uh-rum can-uh-DEN-see)
• Family Aristolochiaceae
• Hardy perennial

European settlers arriving in North America had to do without many of the comforts of home from the Old Country. In the case of gingerroot (Zingiber officinale), however, they found a substitute in the rhizomes of an unrelated plant that they dubbed wild or Indian ginger (Asarum canadense).

Wild ginger is a member of the birthwort family. The genus Asarum comprises about seventy species of low-growing, stemless perennial herbs with aromatic rhizomes, most native to warm temperate eastern Asia, a few to North America, and one to Europe. A. canadense is native to eastern North American woodlands, surviving temperatures as low as –40°F.

Wild ginger rhizomes growing on top of the ground or just below the surface produce a new pair of soft, hairy, heart- or kidney-shaped leaves each year in early spring. They emerge light green and wrinkled, wrapped tightly around hairy leaf stalks, and gradually unfold and darken to medium green during the next several weeks. Three to 4 inches wide when they first open, the leaves may reach 71/2 inches across by fall atop sprawling leaf stalks up to 15 inches long. In April or May, a curious reddish brown flower with no petals appears between the two leaf stalks at ground level; it may even be hidden in leaf litter. The bell-shaped calyx, 1/2 inch long and 11/2 inches across, has three pointed lobes. The flower may be self-pollinat­ed. The calyx persists until the big, oval, glossy grayish, green, or brown seeds ripen in four to six weeks. How the seeds are dispersed is unknown, although ants are known to carry away the seeds of the European species (A. europaeum).

Uses

Native Americans prepared decoctions and infusions of the wild ginger rhizome to bring on menstruation and regulate irregular heartbeat. The Meskwaki steeped crushed rhizomes and poured the liquid into the ear to relieve earache.

Early European settlers no doubt learned many medicinal uses from Native Americans. Perhaps their tooth powder made from the pulverized bark of black alder, bayberry, and black oak mixed with powdered wild ginger rhizome was also an Indian remedy. Their use of the candied rhizome and syrup to relieve flatulence and stomach cramps, however, likely derived from the similar use of gingerroot back home. Another Old World influence was the “doctrine of signatures”, according to which wild ginger’s kidney-shaped leaves were a sign that the plant was meant to be used to treat kidney disorders. Other folk uses of wild ginger included relieving fevers by inducing sweating and treating snakebite (hence one name for it, Canada snakeroot).





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