When I was seventeen years old the words “Wild Ginger” would have brought to mind an image of a girl that I could have never introduced to my mother. However this wild ginger is not quite as spicy as that girl with the Led Zepplin tee shirt and skull earrings. This one is a sweet treat that was highly prized by backwoods mountaineers and puritans alike.
According to Peterson’s Field Guide the rhizomes were boiled down in sugar water until the root was tender and then eaten like candy or dried and ground into a powder for seasoning. The resulting broth could be used as a tea. As with a lot of wild edible plants there’s also recommend medicinal uses that may or may not be valid. From what I understand the spice value was more popular than the medicinal value.
Again I have a plant that I find fascinating but have been apprehensive about actually trying. And there’s a reason. The USDA warns that if you eat too much wild ginger that it can cause kidney damage. In fact it’s been found that some species produce aristolochic acid. A substance that is found in rat poison! I know that some foragers are more daring and will think that I’m too cautious but I tend not try plants that that have questionable reputations. One of the stories that I ran into while researching for tonight’s post is about a mass poisoning that happened in Belgium during the late 90s. There was even deaths. The tragic story said that the deaths were linked to diet pills that contained a Chinese member of this same genus of plant. ( Which is why I always caution readers to do independent research and keep in mind that Forage Friday is only intended to be an entertainment and give you an interesting story to read )
The big question is if the North American variety has the same problem. The USDA warning says yes it does but the history of the plant says no. And, since I’m not a biochemist I’m not really able look much deeper into the toxicology so I don’t risk it.
The plant’s growth patterns do make it a beautiful addition to the shady areas of my property. Once established it grows in thick lush colonies near the Mayapple. I have noticed that the soil in these spots tends to be alluvial.
The wild ginger flowers are reddish brown and very low to the ground. They also smell horrible! That’s because they are pollinated by flies. They actually smell like something that has been dead for a while.
An unopened flower bud of the wild ginger.
Timing has not allowed me to locate a fully open flower but as you can see here the buds look like they could be from an alien world. Once open they look similar to the Trilliums.
Another oddity is that the seed is spread by ants. The tip of the oily seed is cut off by the ant and taken into the colony and the actual seed is left outside to germinate.
In closing, wild ginger is a no go for me due to the risk of damage to diabetic kidneys. The online research says that maybe it’s okay in small amounts and the history shows that that’s how it was used. Not as a main course but as a flavoring. Even as a candy it would not have been consumed in large quantities. The lesson of wild ginger is moderation.
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