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Mother Nature Monday: Meet Little Brown Jugs and Ginger

You can find Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) growing in many areas of Graham County, and there is an especially nice patch along the double loop trail of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. In plant identification books, there are three different plants that are commonly called “Wild Ginger”. Only one of those three is actually included in the ginger genus Asarum.

Wild Ginger

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is usually found at lower elevations in slightly damp locations. The plants are very attractive, with large, solid green, heart-shaped leaves. Their flowers are most unusual and you must get down on your knees and gently search for the solitary, putty brown or maroon flowers at the very base of the plants, just at soil level.

Wild Ginger Flower

If you were to dig Wild Ginger up, you would notice that the rhizomes have the taste and smell of oriental ginger, the kind you use in cooking and can buy in the produce department of your local grocery store. Our wild ginger is not closely related to oriental ginger, but both rhizomes are deeply aromatic. Wild Ginger has a more delicate taste, and is a bit more peppery, than oriental ginger.

A second plant, often mistakenly called wild ginger, also grows commonly in this area. The leaves closely resemble the leaves of authentic Wild Ginger. However, It’s flowers look like tiny little brown jugs. Hence, it’s common name of “Little Brown Jug” (Hexastylus arifolia). Note that it is included in an entirely different genus than Asarum.

Little Brown Jug

The third plant confused with wild ginger even has ginger in its name! Shuttleworth’s Ginger (Hexastylus shuttleworthii). This plant is rare, but present. The plant is quite beautiful and has large heart-shaped leaves. It is sold in many native nurseries. Shuttleworth’s Ginger has mottled leaves and its flowers are large compared to the flowers of the other two plants; Wild Ginger and Little Brown Jug.

Shuttleworth’s Ginger

Wild Ginger was used by the Cherokee and Settlers of European extraction since at least 1600. The rhizomes were used to flavor meat and fish dishes. The Native Americans used a tea made from the rhizome to treat a variety of medical problems; indigestion, coughs, cramps, fevers, colds and sore throats. If you decide to experiment, be very careful. Too much ginger, concentrated in tea, can cause burning and indigestion in your intestinal system. Wild ginger contains aristolochic acid (AA) and can adversely affect your kidneys.

Interestingly, the little flowers of all three plants, Wild Ginger, Little Brown Jug and Shuttleworth’s Ginger, are pollinated by crawling and flying insects. That is why the flowers lie on the ground, in the leaf litter. These flowers are so interesting that you shouldn’t miss the chance in April and May to check them out closely with a hand lens or magnifying glass.

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