Just about everyone knows what ginger looks like and that it’s a tropical plant. Before modern international trade, fresh ginger was a real treat. Early colonists in the US found a tasty substitute that that indigenous tribes had been using for centuries. There are two species, Asarum canadense in the East and Asarum caudatum in the West. Either way, it’s commonly known as wild ginger.
Wild ginger is a low growing, shade-loving perennial with heart-shaped leaves. Landscapers use it as a ground cover under dense shade, and it grows wild in woodland regions across the country. This patch below is along the side of a hiking trail in Central Vermont.
The leaves are heart-shaped, which helps with identification. If you’ve never seen wild ginger, it can be confused with coltsfoot leaves. When I was initially looking for it, I stopped and inspected just about every patch of coltsfoot along the trail, but that was only because I was so desperate to find it.
The plants are low growing, and the leaves are very vaguely similar, but coltsfoot leaves are in no way heart-shaped. The second giveaway is the flowers. They’re not visible because the plant sends them out under the leaf litter. Pull the leaves back a bit and look for a few of the wild ginger flowers.
The flowers are pollinated by flies, and supposedly smell like rotting meat to attact flies trying to find a place to lay their eggs. I couldn’t smell anything in the flowers, I could only smell the ginger scent on their leaves and rhizomes. Perhaps I found them at the wrong time? Either way, they didn’t smell bad to me.
When you pull out a wild ginger flower, it looks a little bit like Trillium. Some of the flowers have much more elongated “petals.” What looks like petals on the flower are actually sepals, because wild ginger flowers don’t have any true petals.
The real prize is the wild ginger rhizome. They’re very small, but they’re tasty and flavorful. Unfortunately, they’re ever so mildly toxic. Keep in mind, that spinach is also mildly toxic…it’s all about the does.
There’s a great discussion on the wild ginger toxicity here, and the take away is that you’d need to eat about 4 1/2 pounds of wild ginger a day for 3-12 months to achieve the toxic dose given to rats. In reality, even in a big patch, it’s difficult to collect more than a few grams of ginger rhizome. Look how small they are…
Unlike tropical ginger, much of the flavor is in the stems and leaves rather than the rhizome. Still, those stems and leaves are remarkably light and it’d be a challenge to collect a whole pound even if you decimated the patch.
Beyond the high dose required for toxicity, wild ginger isn’t meant to be eaten whole. It’s most commonly used in tea, and the toxin is not particularly soluble in water. Just avoid eating the whole root, combining it with vinegar or making an alcohol tincture and it should be just fine.
How to Use Wild Ginger
So how do you use wild ginger? It makes a tasty ginger tea that tastes almost exactly like tropical ginger, but without any of the heat. Think of the smell of fresh ginger, but without the spicy burn on your tongue.
Since you’re limited to water extraction, there are only a few other things you can reasonably do with wild ginger beside tea. This recipe for wild ginger ice cream extracts the flavor from the leaves and stems into cream and milk. Since it only uses the leaves, it won’t kill the plant and is a much more sustainable way to forage wild ginger.
Medicinal Uses of Wild Ginger
Though wild ginger is tasty, it’s most often sought out for its medicinal uses. It’s said to “bring on the menses” which is a subtle way of saying that it was used for contraception. Whether it’s used as a preventative, or it’s a straight-up abortifacient is unclear, but use with caution if you’re a female.
Wild ginger is also known as colic root since it’s used to treat colic, upset stomach, indigestion and cramps.
The root contains antibiotic substances, and it can be chopped into a poultice that’s used under plantain leaves to treat open wounds and skin inflammation. One source says that it was used by Meriweather Lewis to treat wounds during his exploration of the Louisiana territory in 1806.
There are accounts that the native Americans sought it out to season meat that died of unknown causes. Since it has broad-spectrum antibiotic properties, this makes a bit of sense. If you come across a dead animal and you’re hungry, but you don’t know how it died or how long it’s been there…it’s good to use precautions. I’d imagine you’d have to use a lot of wild ginger seasoning to kill pathogens, so I’m not sure how helpful that is.
Wild ginger has also been used to treat heart palpitations, promote sweating to treat fever, as an appetite stimulant and as a general health tonic.
However you use it, use it with caution. It does contain detectable levels of Aristolochic acid which is a known kidney toxin. In very high does, that can be fatal. You’d need to eat an absurd quantity of wild ginger for fatal results, but be careful using it at all if you have kidney issues.