In a shady forest with rich, moist soil beneath your feet, you may find this lush green ground cover plant with large heart shaped leaves and a delicious scent. Even better, between the months of April and July, thimble size flowers of a brownish-purple color are nestled, almost hidden, beneath the leafy rosette.
Wild ginger, Asarum caudatum, can be found from British Columbia to central California. It grows on the west side of the Cascades from low to mid elevation. The word ‘ginger’ dates back to a 13th century Sanskrit word meaning ‘horn-root’ or ‘root with horn shape’, and it has generally been applied to plants with this particular spicy smell.
While indigenous peoples had many uses for wild ginger, from topical rubs to treat arthritis pain to a tea used to settle the stomach, this native wild ginger is not to be confused with the culinary spice, ginger, used in popular cooking today. The ginger spice used in recipes throughout the world is a knotted, beige-colored root, or rhizome, of the Zingiber officinale plant. The plant used as ginger spice is widely cultivated. It is native to southeastern Asia and also grows wild in Africa, the Caribbean, and Australia. Zingiber officinale thrives in warm climates and grows three to four feet tall, with reed-like leafy stems and flowers.
As you walk along trail this month, watch for the yellowing leaves of wild ginger as it retreats into horizontal stems beneath the soil surface and dream about late spring when those tiny brownish-purple flowers will await your discovery.
For more information about wild ginger plant and uses by indigenous peoples see: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy McKinnon.
For information on identifying and growing wild ginger see: Washington Native Plant Society website (wnps.org) and the book Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur R. Kruckeberg and Linda Chalker-Scott.