Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)

Asarum caudatum

Western wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) is an understory plant that offers wonderful texture in the form of deeply veined, evergreen, aromatic leaves that carpet the soil in shady conditions, soil protection, habitat for tiny creatures, and unusual, secretive flowers. The genus Asarum has about 17 species found in North America, China, and Europe; the name is the Latin form of the Greek asaron, of obscure origin. The species epithet, caudatum, means “tailed” and refers to the wispy, almost whimsical appendages of the sepals, which protect the flower.

And what a flower! Burgundy with a brownish tinge, and enchantingly mysterious in appearance, they typically bloom from April to July in Oregon. You may not even notice them unless you’re weeding on your hands and knees, or if you make a special point to seek out their intricate beauty at ground level. With charming little tails, a three-cornered shape, and a hairy cup that conceals the real flower, they are one of nature’s hidden little gems, observable only to soil dwellers or those two-legged creatures with a spirit of curiosity.

Asarum caudatum

How it grows
Western wild ginger is an often overlooked but ubiquitous member of various forest communities at low to middle elevations, from British Columbia south to California, and as far east as western Montana. With substantial tree cover and rich soils, these communities occur in areas with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers, on fairly flat ground to moderate slopes. The available literature suggests that while wild ginger is not an early colonizer in the process of succession (a.k.a. “pioneer species”), it occurs in most successional communities, including stages that have some overstory canopy. In other words, they grow with established forest species that didn’t pop up overnight and won’t be found in recently disturbed areas, like clearcuts, burns, or landslides. They will do best with established native trees that offer protection and other rewards.

Wildlife value
Lustrous evergreen leaves provide protection for little arthropods and other tiny lives that frequent the forest floor, which may in turn supply food for some bird and herp species. The flowers attract beetles that (along with flies and gnats) pollinate them, as well as ants that are drawn to a fleshy appendage on its seeds that contain an oil. And it is thought that the plant may sustain native rodents in some parts of the region.

Try it at home
Wild ginger is a ground cover that creeps slowly by shallow, fleshy rhizomes; the closer you space plants, the faster they will fill in (generally, about three to four feet apart is adequate). In addition to reproduction via rhizomes, it sometimes spreads by seed, thanks to ants: After they dutifully and mightily drag an entire seed back to their nest, the oil is removed for their young and the remainder of the seed, still viable, is discarded onto the soil.

Optimal growing conditions include shade to part shade and moist, rich soil. If you already have a woodland garden complete with mature conifers, your soil will probably be adequately acidic and fertile (unless you’ve been removing leaf litter and such that should be allowed to stay!). If your soil is lacking in organic matter, or the top soil is shallow, add some compost as mulch (leaf compost is good) and allow future leaves to stay put.

Since wild ginger prefers moist soil, keep new plants adequately hydrated for at least the first couple of summers, especially if your site lacks many trees or is subjected to sunlight or heat. Plant it in the fall for best results.

This plant is a possible substitute for the invasive Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria).

Grab a partner
Wild ginger is a choice perennial for beneath native conifers like Douglas-fir, Western hemlock, Sitka spruce, grand fir, white pine, and Western redcedar, as well as deciduous smaller trees and shrubs such as red alder, vine maple, and California hazelnut. It is exquisite growing amongst smaller associated species such as sword fern, deer fern, goatsbeard, fairybellsfoamflower, trillium, and many others.


© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

12 thoughts on Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Western Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)

  1. I have an old Douglas Fir that would love some company underneath and against and around it and I just got some wild ginger in a pot that also has inside out flower and trillium from Bosky Dell. However because of the canopy cover I would call the area beneath the tree dry shade. But if I plant things closely (goats bear, trillium, snowberry, ferns) and mulch well (there is already a good amount of forest duff below this Doug Fir) and water well for its first season or two, do you think wild ginger would establish ok underneath this tree, or should I put these plants in a different locale? Thanks so very much!

    Reply
    1. Wild ginger, inside-out flower, trillium and goat’s beard probably won’t do well in dry shade — they all naturally occur in moist forests or wooded areas; they also need soil high in organic matter (but not wood chips). Also, I’d recommend waiting until autumn to plant them, to make sure they get a good start on root growth before they have to put energy into aboveground growth. You might want to check out my book … it has all this info in it. Thanks for growing natives!

      Reply
  2. How vigorous of a ground cover is wild ginger used in the garden? I have shady raised beds on the north side of my house and was pondering this for a ground cover in them, especially if it will crowd out weeds effectively. Thanks for your insight!

    Reply
    1. It’s not what I would call assertive; it spreads fairly slowly. Just keep in mind that raised beds dry out faster than the ground so it’ll likely need more water during warm periods than if it was in the ground. It may be best to just remove the raised beds and plant it in the ground. That said, if you have a fair amount of organic matter in your beds it may do fine. Hope that helps.

      Reply
    1. Western wild ginger doesn’t naturally occur in Deschutes County. It’s best to grow natives that are native to your immediate area. You can find native plants’ natural ranges here (zoom in to county level):

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  3. oh and unsure how to get a picture up here of the plant I pulled that looks very similar to the picture on here on your site. I am also on facebook and messenger, which I and my husband use together – Kayla N Timothy Shumate, I would love to see someone from this site get back to me, Love to learn more about plants and the plants that we have here in West Virginia and in our own backyard. Thank you in advance…

    Reply
    1. My website focuses on the Pacific Northwest and this particular plant naturally occurs in the northwestern states and California. You may have Asarum canadense in your area. I suggest you get in touch with the West Virginia Native Plant Society. You can also take samples of plants to a plant nursery or garden center to get IDs. Best of luck!

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  4. You are right! I didn’t notice the exquisite blooms of my Western Wild Ginger until this year when weeding around it. I fell in love with this plant even more! I love receiving your updates and learn so much more about Pacific Northwest plants. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. You’re very welcome! Thank you for your comment and especially for your appreciation and admiration of these lovely (and functional) plants that never cease to amaze me.

      Reply

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