Origin: Eastern North America
Improvement status: Wild
Seeds per packet: ~20
BOTANICAL SAMPLE - NOT GERMINATION TESTED
Life cycle: Perennial
Native to eastern North America north of Florida, wild ginger is a shade-loving perennial groundcover with round, heart-shaped leaves and unique triangular burgundy-purple flowers — which look very much like some Masdevallia orchid flowers — hiding close to the ground under the canopy of the leaves (more on this curious flower below). The root has a ginger-like flavor, but eating more than a small bit of it is not recommended due to toxicity. It has medicinal uses including antibiotic properties.
Here's a portion of an essay on this plant by Larry Stritch, available on the US Forest Service website:
"The color and the location of the flower have an unusual and interesting story. The flower evolved to attract small flies that emerge from the ground early in the spring looking for a thawing carcass of an animal that did not survive the winter. By lying next to the ground flower is readily found by the emerging flies. The color of the flower is similar to that of decomposing flesh. Whether these flies pollinate the flower or not is in some dispute. Nevertheless they do enter the flower to escape the cold winds of early spring and to feast upon the flowers pollen. Some of the pollen attaches to their bodies and is taken with them when they visit the next flower.
When the seeds finally ripen, they have a little oily food gift attached to the seed; this appendage is called an “elaiosome.” The “elaiosomes” attract ants that carry the seeds off to their underground home where they consume the tasty food and leave the seed to germinate. The ecological advantage is that the seeds are not predated upon by seed-eating animals.
Wild ginger has some interesting ethnobotanical uses as well. Native Americans and early Euro-American settlers have used wild ginger as a spice. The root is harvested dried and then ground into a powder. Early settlers also cooked pieces of the root in sugar water for several days to obtain a ginger-flavored, candied root. The left over liquid was then boiled down to syrup that was used on pancakes and other food items. However, you should be aware that scientists have determined that the plants may contain poisonous compounds and consumption of the plant is highly discouraged.
Native Americans and then Euro-American settlers also used the plant as a poultice to treat wounds. Medical researchers have identified two antibiotic compounds in the plant so its historical use as an antibiotic has been validated."
We got these seeds from the fine folks at Prairie Moon Nursery.
GROWING TIPS: The biggest challenge with this species is germination. Seeds have double dormancy, so they need to go through a period of warm, moist stratification, followed by cold, moist stratification. You can mimic this natural pattern by putting seeds into a slightly moist sterile growing medium and keeping them somewhere warm for 60 to 90 days, then moving them to the fridge, for 60 to 90 days, or you can plant the seeds in early spring and just keep on eye out for them over the next year or two. If you won't be planting the seeds right away, we recommend storing them in the refridgerator until you plant them or begin pre-treatment procedures.
Photo is credited to Chris S. Packard.