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wild ginger

Wild ginger’s early spring leaves can appear almost glossy when compared to their hairy stems.

The past few years, I have been working to transform my shade gardens. That’s just a fancy way of saying I’ve been replacing and adding plants, trying to find what will grow to be happy, healthy and luscious in the shade.

A friend suggested I look into wild ginger (Asarum canadense). It’s new to me, so I thought I would share my research and we could learn together.

This is not a plant for sunny garden beds — the leaves will burn in the hot sun. Wild ginger likes shaded sites with rich, well-watered soil. It’s easy to identify by its large, heart-shaped leaves, which can be six inches in diameter. It has a small, dark-reddish flower resembling a bell that forms under the leaves. It’s here that insects often seek refuge from spring winds, then act as a pollinator when they leave and move on the next flower.

Wild ginger’s early spring leaves can appear almost glossy when compared to their hairy stems. It’s not a tall plant, somewhere between 6 and 10 inches high. Those big, shiny leaves and small flowers may attract ants and other insects, but deer are not interested.

That is a bonus, because my deer — they come scurrying home when it storms or to rest in the afternoon, and even have their babies under the brush, so they are my deer — eye my garden for what’s new and tasty on a daily basis.

Wild ginger seeds can be difficult and time-consuming to germinate, but an established patch can be easily separated by slicing the rhizomes and creating new plants. Rhizomes are the underground stems that travel and produce new shoots that come above ground to form stems. This plant is not invasive, but will slowly spread to create a lovely ground cover.

When planting, space your plants at least 8 inches to 10 inches apart. Wild ginger likes moist soil, so be faithful to your watering schedule.

This is not the culinary ginger you may be familiar with from recipes and teas. In doing my research, I found contradicting information about this plant being edible. My advice, unless you are an expert, is don’t count on it or any other plant you are unsure of to be edible. I’m not the expert and will continue to buy my cooking ginger from the market.

When we talk about shade gardens, we have to mention hostas and ferns, both good companion plants for the wild ginger. Jack in the pulpit and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are also deer-resistant and good complements to this plant. After the bluebells bloom and begin to die back, the ginger leaves will fill the space. Use the wild ginger as a border in the front of your bed, or give it time and it will create a lovely mass planting or colony of plants to fill in an area.

Now, I have done my research and I’m ready to plant. After visiting my usual catalogs and website, I can’t find it, it’s sold out. I will keep trying and reaching out to local nurseries hoping it appears.

One site, after telling me how tricky it is to grow from seed, did warn me that digging in a national forest without a permit was illegal and to dig on private property only with the permission of the owner, so be careful out there. Harvest wild ginger carefully and responsibly — and if you find a little extra, let me know and we can experiment with this shady ground cover together.

Jane Powell is a long-time West Virginia Extension Service Master Gardener through the Kanawha County chapter and has a garden with sunny spots and shady beds where she grows perennials, vegetables and herbs. She is also the author of “Gardening in Pearls,” a blog that combines her love of gardens, fashion and design. By day, Jane is the communications director for a community foundation and a volunteer with several nonprofits in the community. Find her blog at gardeninginpearls.com. Reach Jane at janeellenpowell@aol.com.