Walking in the woods throughout much of Virginia, you might spot a small herbaceous plant with glossy evergreen leaves, often with attractive mottling, but with no visible blooms. Folding the leaves aside, in early spring you spy small jug-shaped burgundy-brown flowers hugging the ground, giving rise to one of the plant’s common names, little brown jugs. More commonly called wild ginger or heartleaf, its rhizome—an underground stem—smells similar to culinary ginger, but the plants aren’t related. In fact, the rhizomes of wild ginger are considered to be carcinogenic and potentially toxic.
Nomenclature for the wild gingers can get a bit wonky. Some authorities put the approximately 85 species into one genus, Asarum. To others, the ten North American species are often separated out into another group, Hexastylis, which could be considered to be another genus—or not. Meanwhile, the remaining 75 species are split off into four more groups, one of which happens to be known as Asarum. Confused yet? To us mere gardening mortals, these distinctions are largely irrelevant, at least until you’re shopping for a plant. At that point, be prepared to search under both Asarum or Hexastylis.
Seven species of Hexastylis grow in the southeast U.S., with six appearing in Virginia. Some, such as H. virginica, are widespread, occurring in all but a handful of northern counties. Others are much more scattered, found only in the southern or western parts of the Commonwealth. Hexastylis contracta, mountain heartleaf, occurs only in Washington County, Virginia, as well as a dozen or so counties in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Among the Hexastylis species, I can readily distinguish only one, H. arifolia, owing to its arrow-shaped leaves—or “triangular to ovate-saggitate or subhastate” in botanical-speak. The other species typically have leaves that are smaller and heart-shaped. A determined botanist can poke around in the leaf litter under the leaves and find small differences in the flowers, but I find the foliage more interesting, especially since it’s often variegated. The degree of mottling varies from plant to plant, so if you’re looking to purchase, try to see the actual plant that you’re buying.
As for species that have remained firmly in the genus Asarum, the Canadian ginger, A. canadense is a deciduous groundcover that is common in the eastern United States, especially to the north. Leaves are heart-to-kidney-shaped—choose your organ—and conceal the flowers as their Hexastylis cousins do.
One Asian species, Asarum splendens from China, is occasionally seen for sale. The arrow-shaped leaves are a bit larger than its American cousins, and the mottling is quite showy, especially in the cultivar ‘Quicksilver’. Below 10o it may not be fully evergreen, but it will come back in the spring.
All the wild gingers need shade and do best with consistent moisture. Not widely available in nurseries, you’ll have your best luck online or at sales conducted by public gardens or native plant groups.
The True Gingers
To those of us not living in the tropics, culinary or garden ginger, Zingiber officinale, is best known for its edible rhizome. A truly tropical plant, it would not survive outdoors in our area, and is not related to the Asarums.
Another ginger species, Zingiber myoga, is reportedly hardy to zone 6a, so it could be worth a try in your garden. An herbaceous perennial growing to about three feet tall each season, its flower buds and young shoots can be finely shredded and used as a garnish. (Warning: one source states that older shoots, as well as the rest of the plant, are poisonous. Proceed with caution.) Myoga prefers partial sun to shade and moist conditions, although good drainage is also important, especially in winter. The lush foliage and soft yellow flowers make for an attractive plant, even if you never use it in cooking. Variegated cultivars are available from specialty sellers, such as Plant Delights Nursery.
If you’re willing to stretch your garden to zone 7b, a couple of Zingiber relatives are worth considering, such as the hidden cone gingers. Curcuma zedoaria ‘Pink Wonder’ has lush green foliage with a burgundy stripe down the middle; the inflorescence is white topped with pink. The source of turmeric, Curcuma longa ‘Snowdrift’, is covered in tropical-looking foliage with white variegation; pale pink flowers lurk near the base of the plant. All curcumas like very warm weather and won’t emerge from dormancy until mid-June. Don’t forget where you plant them.
The white or orange flowers of the ginger lilies (Hedychium species and hybrids) sit atop corn-like stalks ranging from four to six feet tall. Some cultivars of Hedychium are very sweetly-fragrant, others less so; you might want to give the flowers a test sniff in the summer when purchasing. Both Curcumas and Hedychiums want lots of moisture and nutrition in the summer, but prefer things dry in the winter. Also, hope that your winter temperatures stay above 5 degrees.
But what about doing something in a gingerly manner? After a little research, it appears that gingerly is not related etymologically to ginger as a plant name. Presumably the spicy condiment doesn’t lead one to proceed in a cautious manner, after all.