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Brightly colored warblers flit overhead in trees that are barely leafed-out. The tiny sprites are restless, consuming as many insects as possible on this short stopover in their northern flight. They spend so little time with us that I'm engrossed watching and identifying them. Soon my neck stiffens from looking up so long. I bend my head down. That's when I discover the green carpet of double hearts. Wild ginger, a native Wisconsin plant, quilts much of the forest floor in this rich maple woods. Soon I'm down on my hands and knees taking a closer look at this unique plant.
Each plant measures about four to six inches tall and is composed of two heart-shaped leaves facing each other on short separate stems. They remind me of ballroom dancing partners gazing into each other's eyes as the music begins. Although these "dancers" are immobile, save for swaying in the occasional breeze, they crowd the forest floor. As each plant grows in close proximity, new plants arise from shallow, pipe cleaner-sized rhizomes. The growth pattern is more obvious at the colony's fringe as the new "couples" appear in lines as if preparing to dance a Virginia reel.
Wild ginger, Asarum canadense, is a perennial that prefers moist deciduous woods and shady riverbanks. It appears in late April to early May before the tree canopy is fully leafed-out. Taxonomists refer to the three- to four-inch fuzzy leaves as chordate, meaning heart-shaped, or reniform, meaning kidney-shaped.
Wild ginger is an early bloomer whose burnt-red flowers are inconspicuous from a distance. You have to look really closely to see them. One grape-sized, bell-shaped flower grows per leaf pair between the stalks on a really short stem that nods so close to the ground that leaves often hide it. The flower has three flaring lobes, really sepals, that taper to long points. The interior is white. Compacted tightly into each flower, a pistil with a thick style expands at the tip into a six-lobed stigma. Twelve stamens with 12 anthers closely touch the style.
The flower's odor is difficult to detect – neither sweet nor pleasant but rather pungent – probably an odor that only a fly can appreciate, which is just as well since flies, gnats and beetles are the prime pollinators. Wild ginger can also self-pollinate. The mature fruit capsule splits in June revealing several large, egg-shaped, wrinkled seeds. Each seed is adorned with a fleshy appendage called an elaisome that attracts ants. The ants help expand the plants' range by carrying the seeds underground, eating the elaisomes, then discarding the seeds.
After experiencing winter's cold, the ginger seeds germinate the following summer. Typically a first-year seedling only bears two small cotyledon leaves. In its second summer, the first true leaves appear. If this young plant survives, it will start a new colony. This leads me to ponder how old the extensive blanket of plants before me must be.
Though the capsules release their seeds in June, the hairy leaves continue to grow into autumn when the deciduous leaves dry up. Unlike spring ephemeral wildflowers that only appear for a few fleeting days, wild ginger is visible for much of Wisconsin's growing season for as long as six to seven months. This plant is easy enough to recognize once you've discovered it. So take to the reawakening woods in late spring, watch for the warblers overhead, and mind the wild ginger underfoot.
Anita Carpenter walks and waltzes the wooded paths near her Oshkosh home.