Wild ginger spices up the Maryland spring

As a pollination biologist, I have the immense privilege of studying really cool plants who trick their pollinators in fancy and incredible ways, and I tend to be naturally attracted to flowers that may not be super showy to most (but are among some of the most mind-blowing things in nature). These flowers are such a wonderful thing in their own right, and in this post I want to do them justice. Because it’s spring and some of these are starting to point their noses out of the ground, in today’s post I would like to (re)introduce you to a plant you may be familiar with, but that I hope after today you will get to look at with new amazed eyes (in case you don’t already 😉 ). Come with me and let’s chat a bit about the wonderful hidden queen of our forests: the wild ginger!

Is wild ginger, ginger?

The short answer is no. While ginger (the plant we eat) is native to Southeast Asia, wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is native to right here, and more specifically to the deciduous forests of Eastern North America. In case you are not familiar with the plant, it belongs to the family of birthworts, which have really interesting ways of interacting with their pollinators. Unlike other birthworts that tend to have flowers that hang in the air from the plant, wild gingers are very “shy” and the whole plant is restricted to the ground level.

Wild ginger is starting to peek out their leaves right now. Once the leaves are fully grown, they get their characteristic heart-shape and can create nice mats to cover the ground. Photos: A. Espíndola; threelark.

The plant is perennial (it lives for several seasons) and exits dormancy in the early spring when its heart-shaped and fuzzy leaves start to unfurl and emerge from the ground. Eventually, the plant becomes a little mat and over time it creates colonies. This is a reason why wild ginger can be a great groundcover plant to use under trees or in shadier and humid parts of one’s yard (see here for how to do this).

Wild ginger is cool – The flowers!

Unlike other birthworts, wild ginger holds its flowers close and parallel to the ground. Wild ginger’s flowers are not showy, being of dark brown and not very large. These flowers are engaged in mimicry pollination, meaning that “disguise” as something else (here, fungi), to trick pollinators into doing something they don’t necessarily want to do. In the case of wild ginger, the flowers are held low to the ground and close to the base of the stems.

Wild ginger flowers are displayed on the ground, at the base of the fuzzy stems. Being dark and close to the ground helps them lure their pollinators, small flies that feed on decaying matter. Photo: A. Carlson.

Wild ginger flowers are dark, particularly moist, and produce specific odors that attract small flies that feed on decaying matter. The tricking consists in making the flies enter the flowers to lay eggs in what the flies consider is fungi (their egg laying sites). While doing this, the flies contact the pollen-bearing structures, and while visiting different flowers, they cross-pollinate them. In this case, we talk about antagonistic interactions between the plants and their pollinators because the interaction does not benefit both partners. In fact, here the plants have the upper hand, and the flies simply loose their eggs to the plant since their larvae can’t feed on the floral tissues. If this is not sufficient to amaze you, keep reading; it gets better!

Wild ginger is cool – The seeds!

After pollination, the flower ovules grow into seeds. Unlike seeds in most plants, wild ginger seeds have a special “addition”. Indeed, the seeds have attached a special extension (called an elaiosome) that is particularly rich in lipids and proteins. This structure makes the seeds very attractive to ants, who collect the seeds, carry them away from the plant, and, after having consumed the elaiosome, discard the seed. By doing this, the seeds can get dispersed farther away from the mother plant, and the population can slowly grow and expand. Isn’t that super neat????!!!

The seeds of wild ginger have a special nutrient-rich body called elaiosome, which is a delicatessen for ants. This allows the plant to use ants to disperse their seeds. The shiny brown (left) and yellow (right) bodies attached to the seeds are the elaiosomes (arrows). Photos: Sid Vogelpohl, Arkansas Native Plants Society; B. Patterson.

Wild ginger as a human ally

Wild ginger was and is still well known to Native Americans of Eastern North America, and it is very likely that they were the ones who showed the European colonists how to use it. Among the Native names still known for this plant is namepin (see here to learn how to say it), which means “plant of small tubers”. Even though it is hard to find the original local names for Maryland tribes, we know that the roots of the plant were used to treat fever and coughs by Cherokees, Iroquois, and Rappahannocks, and that it is very likely that most of the tribes and bands of Maryland (e.g. Shawnee, Piscataway, Pocomoke, Assateague, Nause-Waiwash, Accohannock) use(d) it as well because the plant was and is abundantly present in the area.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

New! Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

One Comment on “Wild ginger spices up the Maryland spring

  1. Thank you for a fascinating explanation. I’ve had wild ginger in my garden for years. Now I have a new respect (as well as understanding) for this beautiful ground cover.

    Liked by 1 person

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