Sunday, February 26, 2012

Native Gingers – a deceptive common name

Common names can be tricky and our native “ginger” is no exception.  These plants are in the genus Hexastylis if they are evergreen and Asarum if they are deciduous.  Neither genus is related to the non-native edible "ginger" plant which is Zingiber officinale.  Other common names for our native gingers include heartleaf and little brown jug, references to the shape of the leaves and to the shape of the flowers, respectively.

Hexastylis shuttleworthii

While four species of Hexastylis are found in the state of Georgia, the species Hexastylis arifolia has the most widespread distribution - it can be found in the mountain regions, the Piedmont area and even in the Coastal Plain.  Even when people don’t know the name of it, many recognize it upon sight as a familiar woodland plant.  The size, shape and pattern of the leaf can be quite variable depending on local conditions.  The fleshy white roots support a small crown from which new leaves emerge each spring.  The old leaves wither and fade away as the new ones unfurl.  Small urn-shaped brown flowers are borne under the cover of fallen leaves, barely opening enough for the pollinators to crawl inside.  It is one of my favorite spring time activities to show these unique flowers to kids and tell them that they are helped in their life cycle by ants.  The seeds are encased in a fleshy coating known as eliasome.  The ants take the seeds back to their nest so that they can eat the nutritious coating, thus dispersing the seeds into different areas.

A very robust clump of Hexastylis arifolia

I have found Hexastylis arifolia to be a very adaptable plant in the garden.  When given adequate morning sun, a single plant can grow into a handsome clump and can serve as a ground cover in sufficient quantities.  Dry conditions may cause it to wilt, but it rebounds nicely when watered.

A more petite member of the family is Shuttleworth ginger, Hexastylis shuttleworthii.  Naturally found along moist areas like streamsides, this species is also very happy in the garden and spreads even more readily in ideal conditions.  The small leaves are usually textured and mottled in rich patterns. Despite the small size of the leaves, the flowers are larger and more showy than others.  Another common name for this species is large-flowered ginger.  The cultivar ‘Callaway’ is considered to be from the variety Hexastylis shuttleworthii var. harperii.

Flowers, H. arifolia
Flower, H. shuttleworthii

Asarum canadense is the only deciduous ginger found in the southeastern U.S. It’s range extends upwards from Georgia, where it is found in just a few counties, all the way north into Canada. Not as well known to Georgia gardeners, this plant is “ginger” to most of the people outside the southeast.  It is a hardy and useful summer groundcover for many northern gardeners.  It differs from members of the Hexastylis genus in several ways – from the thin, deciduous leaves, to the dense hairs on the plant parts,  to the showy red flowers.  A friend shared a start of it with me over 10 years ago and it has grown well in my yard.

Asarum canadense
Flower, Asarum canadense

Now is your chance to spot some evergreen ginger in the woodlands around you. Take note and plan to visit them again as the new leaves expand above and the flowers bloom below.


  1. Fascinating post! I'm only familiar with Asarum. The Hexastylis is gorgeous!

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  2. Fascinating & informative.. I grow Assarum but have never seen any flowers..this year I will look!

  3. I have never seen any Hexastylis, very interesting and how nice it's evergreen. Asarum is my husband's favorite. He collects the seed and spreads it around the yard.

  4. Just learned about the gingers recently. I will look forward to seeing them flower here in Virginia.