Wild Ginger; or,
Canadian Snakeroot; or,
Indian Ginger or Cotesfoot
"Be humble and you will never be disturbed."
The most common wild ginger in New England, the Great Lakes region, & eastern Canada, also ranging south through the Appalachians, is Asarum canadense.
In our garden it is very hardy, but nowhere near as robust as our own local native A. caudatum. but all things being relative it is nevertheless extremely hardy.
We started it in 2001 from nothing but some thick purple-brown roots. In spring 2003 I noticed that some small new ones were springing up a foot or more from the central plantings, so this patch had obviously been extending its subterranean rhyzomes. It erupted more extensively in 2004, proving very slow to spread. In spring 2005 it had to be dug up because a new stacked-stone wall resulted in raising the soil level a foot higher, & it was replanted pretty much in the same spot but now atop a shade-garden stone ledge. it's now in better soil than ever before, & since an old picket fence was removed when the short wall was built, the little ginger finds itself now in bright shade instead of deep shade under the choke cherry. I expect it to respond favorably to the improvements.
The first photo shows it in June 2003, the leaves having hardened since spring. The second photo shows it in 2004, near the end of March, the leaves still soft & fresh. The third photo is a close up of one of its tendrilled flowers snapped in April 2005 after building the new wall.
It has been deciduous to semi-deciduous in our yard, unlike all our other varieties of wild gingers, which are either evergreen or semi-evergreen. This one nearly vanishes in winter, returning in March as a small close-to-the ground cluster of heart-shaped leaves on very thick stems. Some have seen in the shape of these leaves the impression of a pony's hoof, hence it is occasionally called Coltsfoot.
It hugs the ground more closely than the others we have, & its purple pitcher-flowers are usually hidden under the low leaves, where they hope to be entered & pollinated by beetles & ants.
It is not a true ginger but gained the name wild ginger because the root makes an excellent ginger substitute, & was so used by the earliest European settlers. European settlers also added it to snuff, because it added an uplifting "kick" as well as a pleasant odor to the snuff mix. Asarum leaves also smell of ginger when they are bruised.
Native Americans of the Northeast used the root in preparing a birth control agent, as would seem to be apropos of a plant of the Aristolochiaceae or Birthwort family. It has long been regarded as appropriate for sundry medicinal uses, with several species within the genus, including the Canadian Wild Ginger, having been scrutinized by science, discovering antimicrobial & antitumor properties to asarums.
Unfortunately, the potential benifits have proven to be far outmatched by the dangers. Wild ginger, like Birthwort, contains aristolochic acid, which is not only carcinogenic, but sufficiently toxic to injure the liver & kidneys. Some cases have resulted in organ transplant or death.
Its use as an herbal remedy for anything is now banned in many countries; but Asian internet companies still target heart patients & PMS sufferers, among others, with pitches to use this stuff, & ship it mail-order anywhere in the world.
The traditional use of the fresh root as a ginger substitute is certainly inadvisable raw. It is regarded as safe, by what authority beyond tradition I can't say, if eaten well-cooked.
Continue on to:
Asarum shuttleworthii 'Callaway'
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