Hiking in State Road a few weeks ago, one of our tour guides, Joe, pointed out wild ginger growing off the footpath. I smiled. Mamaw used to do that too; point out wildflowers and herbs when we walked through the woods.
Sometimes Mamaw shared stories about the plants she pointed out. She talked about wildcrafting and folk medicine. She knew a lot about those topics, probably because her mama was a midwife. Wild ginger was one of the plants she often pointed out. It grew in the shady areas near the creeks.
Not the same as the true ginger you purchase from the store, Eastern wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a native perennial. It carries the same scent as ginger, though less powerful. The stemless plant grows close to the ground and sports marbled heart-shaped leaves, with bell-shaped flowers underneath. According to Joe, the plant is pollinated by flies and beetles.
I remember Mamaw telling me old-timers used wild ginger for both flavoring and medicine. She was right. Native Americans and settlers powdered it to use as a spice. The roots were candied, and the remanents preserved as syrup. Medically, the plant was used for everything from earache relief to abortifacients.
Studies prove the herb has both antibiotic and antifungal properties. Unfortunately, they’ve also shown the plant contains the toxic compound aristolochic acid. Due to the potential poisonous nature of the plant, foragers are discouraged from ingesting it.