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.
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.
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, fairybells, foamflower, trillium, and many others.