Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Wild Gingers

European Wild Ginger
Like all of the wild gingers, both Canadian Wild Ginger, Asarum  canadense, and European Wild Ginger, Asarum europaeum, are prized primarily for their foliage. Although the shape of the leaves is similar, European Ginger's smaller, glossy leaves are rounded and almost kidney-shaped, while the Canadian variety's leaves are larger, softer, almost velvety in their texture, and more heart-shaped.

Both varieties are May bloomers in our area, but the blossoms are tucked out of sight beneath the foliage and often go unnoticed. It's a rite of spring (and one that makes me feel somewhat voyeuristic) to wander out to the woodland garden every few days to lift up the leaves in the hope of finding the blooms.

A pair of Canadian ginger blossoms
In our northeastern Massachusetts garden, the Canadian ginger usually blooms first, with it's burgundy and ivory blooms often reclining on the leaf mould under the plants. This year was no different, and the Canadian ginger bloomed a full two weeks ahead of the European ginger, with a larger, more colorful and interesting bloom compared to its European cousin's dusky burgundy brown, smaller, and fairly unattractive one (my opinion only, but you be the judge).

Wild ginger got its name from its flavor, reportedly reminiscent of true ginger and it has been used as a substitute for true ginger in cooking. Both the roots and leaves can be used as a seasoning or condiment (the root can be candied like true ginger) and are considered safe to consume in modest amounts, although some people do experience a sensitivity to it and may develop a rash after handling it. It does have medicinal uses and in large or concentrated amounts can induce vomiting, causing it to be mistakenly considered to be "poisonous", which is really not the case at all.

I've personally never experienced a dermatitis from touching or handling it, but with plenty of fresh true ginger available, I've never been tempted to use wild ginger in cooking. It is, however, a lovely addition to the woodland garden and that is the primary reason we grow it here. The thicker sturdy leaves of the European variety are often green year round providing color in the garden even in winter.

Canadian Wild Ginger
Canadian Wild Ginger: The leaves are larger, softer, and more heart-shaped
Candian Ginger has taller leaf stalks with the blossoms close to the ground
Close-up of a Canadian ginger blossom. it's actually about 3/4 inch wide.
The thick, glossy, round leaves of the European Wild Ginger. The darker leaves in the foreground are last year's growth which remained green all winter, despite frigid temperatures and enormous snow cover.
European Ginger's flowers are smaller and less interesting, about 1/2 inch diameter.
European ginger blossom.

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