Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Flowers: Wild Ginger

Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger) is an odd little flower.  The flower itself is the burgundy color and is found at the base of the plant, resting on the ground.  The flowers are positioned to draw insects that crawl along the ground and the color particularly attracts those that feed on dead things.  The plants emerge and bloom relatively early in the spring and the blooms persist for several weeks.  The plants usually grow in dense clusters in rich forests. They are found throughout eastern Canada and the United States, except Florida. 

Although the flower is quite distinctive, it is typically hidden by the leaves.  The leaves can be confused with both Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot) and members of the Violet family.  A. canadense is distinguished from both of these by the hair that covers the leaves and flowers and that the leaves and roots smell like ginger when broken. 

A. canadense was used by Native Americans as both a flavoring, as a remedy for a number of ailments, and in dressing wounds.  According to Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants (Erichsen-Brown, 1989) it was also used as a birth control agent.  It also hosts the larval Pipeline Swallowtail Butterfly. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A. canadense in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC in 2010.  The flower is about an inch across.
 A. canadense on Old Rag last weekend.  Note the hair on the stems of the leaves and on the back of the flower.
 The flower always grows between two heart-shaped leaves.
A. canadense is often found in colonies.  This one is on the flat top of a large boulder on Old Rag.

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