Wild Ginger Profile
Most people that enjoy a relaxing stroll through shaded North American forests will have undoubtedly come across a wild edible that is so inconspicuous that most wouldn’t have given a second thought to it. Wild ginger forms dense mats blanketing the forest floor with small shiny green leaves all hiding a treasure just below the surface. As you might imagine wild ginger has a fleshy root ready for a number of culinary and medicinal preparations. Not related to conventional ginger, but still having a flavour that resembles its namesake, this wild edible will provide you with a new ingredient to add to your list of wild plants to look out for on your next foraging trek.
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Wild ginger is a ground cover that blankets forest floors with its round to heart-shaped leaves. They can be quite waxy on the upper surfaces of the leaves and make a thick blanket of foliage anywhere it’s found growing. The small brown flowers bloom at the base of the plant with three pointed petals and a cluster of stamen at their cream-coloured centers. The flowers are quite telling of the plant and if you can spot them under the leaves you can use them as a good indicator that you are dealing with the correct plant. The edible rhizome is significantly smaller than conventional ginger. It forms large networks by which new leaves pop up from each spring. The root is roughly the diameter of a pencil. Along these rhizome networks, the plant grows to several meters in diameter and just a few centimeters tall.
Wild ginger is a very hardy plant found from Canada south to Louisiana. It is a shade-loving plant and grows best in forests with good canopy cover. They make good garden plants and are often found in residential gardens.
Culinary uses of wild ginger are very similar to the conventional plant more widely known. The rhizome can be used to flavour a wide variety of dishes and substitutes easily into any dish calling for standard ginger. The flavour isn’t exactly the same but would be a great wild alternative. First Nations across North America used the slightly peppery root as a seasoning in a number of traditional dishes. European colonialists saw this and took advantage of the root to substitute their lack of conventional ginger in their new home. Wild ginger can be substituted for conventional ginger but with its subtler and more peppery flavour it doesn’t produce the same results that you would normally expect.
Medicinally, wild ginger has been steeped to make a tea for relieving stomach pains and boosting appetite for those that have lost theirs. Externally it can be used as a poultice to soothe ailments such as headaches and joint pain. Traditional natural remedies should always be taken upon the recommendation of a doctor but, it is still interesting to learn how different cultures have experimented to come to their own conclusions on how wild plants can be used for treating different ailments.
The rhizomes of wild ginger are available year-round, however, the flavour is best during the fall. Outside of fall it can be quite unpleasant and, if being used for food, will not be a welcome addition. Like all other plants , he exact seasonality is heavily dependent upon latitude and altitude. Using fall as a general guideline will help you have a working reference to decide if it is in season. Generally speaking the closer to sea level or the equator the sooner plants come into season so expect to harvest wild ginger earlier if you are in the USA compared to Canada.
How to Harvest
Harvesting wild ginger root is quite straightforward. You want to harvest the thick rhizome that lies just below the surface. All you will need to get at this portion of the plant is a small garden shovel, gloves if you don’t like dirt under your nails, a pair of scissors to cut your pieces of root free and a bag to hold your bounty. Wild ginger grows under the shade of the forest so you can use this to your advantage and harvest at any time of day. As long as you are being sustainable with your harvest you will be able to wander the forest the whole day and find a bounty of plant material to satisfy every culinary or medicinal need you may have.
Foraging for plant parts like roots you need to pay special attention to ensure a sustainable harvest. It is very easy to get carried away and harvest too much root. Without sufficient root base, the wild ginger will die. If too much is taken the plant won’t be able to regenerate the following spring. A good rule to keep in mind is the 10% rule; take only 10% of any particular plant. This is a low enough percentage that you can be sure that you leave behind a happy and healthy plant for others to enjoy.
When you take your 10% make sure you rebury the remaining roots. Digging up and leaving the roots exposed to the light and air will potentially kill them and negates your adhering to the 10% rule. Just place the soil back over the roots and gently pack it down again and you will have peace of mind knowing you have done your part to ensure its survival. Wild ginger grows in dense pockets on the forest floor so keeping to this rule won’t hinder your ability to get enough plant material for your culinary or medicinal purposes.
Whether you’re looking to prepare a wild feast or make a preparation of this wild ingredient for its medicinal properties you are bound to find more than enough when out exploring the shaded forests where wild ginger grows. The thick roots aren’t related to conventional ginger but have a similar flavour, albeit a bit more peppery than the ginger we are more accustomed to. Sustainable practices and proper consultation will allow you to add this plant to your foraging repertoire quite easily so give it second glance next time you’re out for a walk.