Saturday, February 9, 2013

Would You Plant ... Wild Ginger?

Hexastylis arofolia, a.k.a. Wild Ginger. Photo by BlueRidgeKitties.

Hello, fellow gardeners!

I am hoping to benefit from your wisdom with a new series of posts called "Would You Plant..."

These posts will cover plants that intrigue me, that I'd like to add to my garden, but with which I have zero experience.

I'd like to get your opinions (ideally, but not necessarily, grounded in personal experience) as to the merits or demerits of these plants.

So the first one I'm considering is Hexastylis arifolia, a.k.a. Wild Ginger. Another common name is "Little Brown Jug", which refers to the small pitcher-shaped flowers that appear at the base of the stems.


- Native to the Southeast

- Evergreen groundcover (I'm looking for groundcovers that will stay green year round, protecting the soil and blocking winter weeds)

- Reportedly hardy to zone

- Beautiful patterned/mottled foliage

- Really cool and unusual flowers


- It does not appear to grow very thickly. Would it be thick enough to suppress weeds?

- I'm not sure how quickly it would grow to cover ground. I think gingers generally grow kind of slowly. On the other hand, this should make it easier to make sure it doesn't get out of control.

- Slug damage can reportedly be a problem. I'd probably try stopping the slugs in their tracks with diatomaceous earth if that became an issue.

Other comments:

- Wild gingers reportedly need at least partial shade and will grow in full shade. I think they prefer moist soil, but I hope they would do OK in dryer soil if given enough shade and/or supplemental irrigation in case of a drought.

- Wild ginger in the Hexastylis or Asarum genuses are NOT the same as the edible culinary ginger Zingiber officinale. Native to tropical Asia, Z. officinale reportedly is only hardy to zone 8 and thus would not survive a Middle Tennessee winter. Is Hexastylis arifolia edible? I have no idea. You can read conflicting information on the Internet as to whether Asarum (which I believe is closely-related botanically to Hexastylis) is safe or poisonous. Personally, I am not planning to eat any Hexastylis or Asarum roots. I'm just interested in using Hexastylis for ornamental purposes.

Here are some of the sources I found while researching Hexastylis arifolia:

- Clemson Cooperative Extension (Incidentally, Clemson seems to believe using the ornamental ginger in cooking is OK: "Wild ginger does not refer to the culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale) that is used in stir-fry and ginger ale. However, its fleshy root does have a spicy aroma and can be substituted for culinary ginger in your favorite Asian recipe.") 

- The Annotated Flora


- Using Georgia Native Plants - Talks about the role that ants reportedly play in dispersing H. arifolia seeds!

Where to Buy:

- If I end up buying Hexastylis arifolia, I'll probably order it from Woodlanders.

So have you grown any of the Hexastylis or Asarum ornamental gingers?

If so, I'd love to hear about your experiences in the Comments section below.

If not, do you think you might add one of these native ornamental gingers to your garden someday based on the pros-and-cons above or would you steer clear? Why or why not?


  1. wild ginger is sooooo delicious when its made into a tea. I had it first in a camp club when I was a child, and then I made it myself 3 years ago.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ron.

      I presume you use the root for the tea? Would you mind telling me how you prepare it? Is it necessary to slice or crush the root? Or can you just steep a chunk of it in hot water?

      Sorry if these are silly questions. Clearly, I never went camping much as a child! ;)

  2. I've never grown it but if you're looking for a great ground cover that can grow thickly, try epimediums. They take bone dry shade and are super tough.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. Epimediums are certainly on my list of plants I'd like to try growing at some point! It seems like Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek (one of my favorite mail-order suppliers) has some interesting options -

      Do you have any favorite Epimediums? I understand they're evergreeen (?) but that it's best to cut back their old foliage in late winter to promote a flush of fresh foliage? Does that sound right?

    2. Aaron, I don't think there are more beautiful plants in this world than Epimediums. I have been growing them for many years, and they get better each year. Some Epimediums are evergreen-ish, but many are deciduous. Mine grow in my wooded area where they are on a slope, and it gets very dry under the trees sometimes in summer, but they don't seem to be bothered by it at all. It still amazes me that something so fragile looking can be so study. Also, some Epimediums grow very, very slowly; some are quite fast - it just depends, again, on which ones you get. I like to grow native plants, too, but there are so many beautiful plants in the world, I don't see the point in limiting myself to just those that are native.

    3. Thanks Dottie. I don't mind planting non-native plants -- as long as they don't have a reputation for being awful invasives. I recall you don't like the term 'invasive' (and I do think it is overused sometimes), but I don't want to plant another kudzu that will create a monoculture or overwhelm endangered natives upon which local birds and other wildlife depend...

      Which of the Epimediums grow fastest in your experience?

    4. Aaron, I don't like invasive plants either, but just because a plant is native doesn't mean it isn't invasive. China doesn't have the monopoly on invasive plants. The Epimedium that grows the fastest for me is a yellow one called "Sulphureum." Epimediums are in no way invasive and, in fact, I'm surprised that they are sometimes referred to as ground covers. In my experience, they do spread - some hardly at all - but not fast enough to cover wide areas of ground. I use them mainly as specimen plants, mixed in with spring bulbs, Helleborus, Trillium, etc.

    5. Thanks Dottie. You're right -- natives can be aggressive too. It's always a challenge to find the right balance. I'll check out Sulphureum on your site! :)

  3. Just growing some and it is slow but I want native ground covers and I anticipate it will not be as invasive as the non-native ones I have planted.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Donna. slow is 'slow'?

      I'm totally on the same page as you in terms of the merits of planting natives and avoiding invasives!

  4. Your summary is very accurate. I think it will grow thickly in a moist, shady spot. On the other hand, it can get a little ragged by late summer if it gets too much sun. It does spread at a stately pace. I have it in a couple of spots and I'm glad I do.

  5. Yes, I would grow it! Sounds like your plant is native in your area? I have Asarum canadense growing in my wooded lot, so I'm going with what grows naturally here. Here's a good article about the various Gingers of North America: I've read several recent articles about how, once established, Wild Ginger can crowd out the Garlic Mustard and other invasives if you can get it established. Good luck!

  6. @Jason - Thanks for the input. I'll be sure to plant Hexastylis in as much shade as possible.

    @PlantPostings - Thanks for the encouragement. Yes, I believe Hexastylis arifolia is native here in TN, or at least in the Southeast. Thanks for the link to the article - interesting reading. I'd love to plant a native that could outcompete the invasives!

  7. I have tons of wild ginger growing in and around my home and's sooo pretty to me...

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      You're lucky to have so much wild ginger! The ornamental ginger I planted here has survived, but never seems to grow any bigger. I think it literally grows one leaf a year, then dies back in the winter and does the same thing the following spring. Plus I think it's now getting swamped by other groundcovers (cranesbill geranium, hellebore, etc.) Still, that one leaf is darn pretty :)

  8. My favorite ground cover is periwinkle, vinca minor. The wild ginger grows in my back yard in the shady part along the fence. It grows of its own since I've lived here in SC. There is a stream on the other side of the fence and its boggy there. It grows in clusters . i don't think it is invasive enough to be a ground cover, but still it's a lovely addition to the shady part or my garden.

    1. Hi there, Unknown.

      Sadly, both Vinca major and Vinca minor are listed as invasive plants in South Carolina. The very qualities that make them effective as groundcovers (their rampant growth and tough constitution) make them a threat to native plant communities. Ergo, personally I'd encourage you to try to remove Vinca where you can and swap in native groundcovers like wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), golden groundsel (Packera obovata) or Robin's plantain (Erigeron pulchellus)

      I gave up on using the wild ginger (Hexastylis arifolia) highlighted in this post. It never actually functioned as a groundcover, just growing literally one leaf from time to time and staying in the same spot.

      But I am now trialing another native ginger - Asarum canadense - which is also native to South Carolina. I've heard this one is a bit more robust and might eventually spread to make a nice patch of groundcover.

      In terms of non-native groundcovers, for shade I've found both 'Biokovo' Geranium and some of the Epimediums (like 'Frohnleiten') to be quite effective and well-behaved (non-invasive).

      Thanks for your comment! Happy gardening :)


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