Wild Ginger – Flowers

Canada Snakeroot; Asarabacca

(Asarum Canadense) Birthwort family

Flower—Solitary, dull purplish brown, creamy white within, about 1 in. broad when expanded, borne on a short peduncle close to or, upon the ground. Calyx cup-shaped, deeply cleft, its 3 acutely pointed lobes spreading, curved corolla wanting ; 12 short, stout stamens inserted on ovary ; the thick style 6-lobed, its stigmas radiating on the lobes. Leaves : A single pair, dark green, reniform, 4 to 7 in. broad, on downy petioles 6 to 12 in. high, from a creeping, thick, aromatic, pungent rootstock.

Preferred Habitat—Rich, moist woods ; hillsides.

Flowering Season—March—May.

Distribution—North Carolina, Missouri, and Kansas, northward to New Brunswick and Manitoba.

Like the wicked servant who buried the one talent entrusted to his care, the wild ginger hides its solitary flower if not actually under the dry leaves that clothe the ground in the still leafless woodlands, then not far above them. Why ? When most plants flaunt their showy blossoms aloft, where they may be seen of all, why should this one bear only one dull, firm cup, inconspicuous in color as in situation ? In early spring—and it is one of the earliest flowers—gnats and small flies are warming into active life from the maggots that have lain under dead leaves and the bark of decaying logs all winter. To such guests a flower need offer few attractions to secure them in swarms. Bright, beautiful colors, sweet fragrance, luscious nectar, with which the highly specialized bees, butterflies, and moths are wooed, would all be lost on them, lacking as they do aesthetic taste. For flies, a snug shelter from cold spring winds such as jack-in-the-pulpit, the marsh calla, the pitcher-plant, or the skunk cabbage offers ; sometimes a foetid odor like the latter’s, or dull purplish red or brownish color resembling stale meat, which the purple trillium likewise wears as an additional attraction, are necessary when certain carrion flies must be catered to; and, above all, an abundance of pollen for food—with any or all of these seductions a flower dependent on flies has nothing to fear from neglect. Therefore the wild ginger does not even attempt to fertilize itself. Within the cosey cup one can usually find a contented fly seeking shelter or food. Close to the ground it is warm and less windy. When the cup first opens, only the stigmas are mature and sticky to receive any pollen the visitors may bring in on their bodies from other asylums where they have been hiding. These stigmas presently withering, up rise the twelve stamens beside them to dust with pollen the flies coming in search of it. Only one flower from a root compels cross-fertilizing between flowers of distinct plants—a means to insure the most vigorous seed, as Darwin proved. Evidently the ginger is striving to attain some day the ambitious mechanism for temporarily imprisoning its guests that its cousin the Dutchman’s pipe has perfected. After fertilization the cup nods, inverted, and the leathery capsule following it bursts irregularly, discharging many seeds.

No ruminant will touch the leaves, owing to their bitter juices, nor will a grub or nibbling rodent molest the root, which bites like ginger ; nevertheless credulous mankind once utilized the plant as a tonic medicine.