I’m always on the lookout for new, useful perennials that can fit into a niche in my garden. And one I’ve simply fallen in love with is Asarum splendens – a wild Chinese ginger. I discovered this plant a few years back, and it’s really proved its merits in my shade garden.
The evergreen splendid ginger has some of the showiest and largest foliage of the tribe.
Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman
Confining the rhizomes to a restricted area concentrates the leaves and creates an impressive display.
Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman
Unlike most wild gingers, with their cute, small leaves, this evergreen Asian ginger has large, marbled leaves and is robust enough to hold its own in my woodland garden. This gorgeous groundcover grows 6-8 inches tall with thick, leathery, lance-shaped foliage about 6 inches long. The leaves are marked with large, irregular patches of silver on a green background, making the plant the most ornamental of the 80-plus species of ginger.
Wild gingers have a decidedly creeping form, and they do produce flowers – but they’re down at ground level, so only slugs, a few ground beetles and the most observant naturalist ever notice them. These brownish, cup-shaped blooms appear in early spring. They’re about the right size to slip over the end of your finger. The fat tube ends in three petals that flare out at right angles. (The flowers of Asarum splendens are bit larger than our native wild ginger, A. canadense.)
Of course, the low-growing wild gingers shouldn’t be confused with the corn-like ornamental gingers we grow in Southern gardens or to the spice used in Chinese and Indian cuisines. While our native wild ginger (with its green, kidney-shaped, herbaceous leaves) was used extensively in Native American folk medicine, it wasn’t used in the kitchen.
While Asarum splendens has been available for some time, it didn’t make its way to the US until 1978. That’s when Dr. Richard Howard, who directed the Arnold Arboretum in Boston at the time, was invited to visit China. He brought the plant back, which he found over a wide range in several south-central provinces.
Dr. Howard quickly realized this new ginger had potential as a garden plant. And its popularity became quite apparent when the mother plant maintained in the Arnold Arboretum’s greenhouse was stolen not once, but twice! Fortunately, a single division had been made, and this new plant became the source material for the plants the arboretum began sharing with nursery professionals in the late 1980s. (I’m not sure whether the plant in my garden is from the material released by the arboretum or from stock procured from the sticky-fingered plant pirate who filched the original plant.)
Naming the ginger has required the sacrifice of a small forest to make paper for all of the various technical names taxonomists have associated with it. At least four names have been used to describe the plant in its short stay in the West, but hopefully they’re now agreed that Asarum splendens, or splendid ginger (also called Chinese wild ginger), is the correct choice. That name certainly fits.
The nice thing about Asarum splendens is that it responds well to cultivation and can produce foot-long rhizomes in a single season. These rhizomes not only permit the plant to spread fairly rapidly (for a ginger), they provide division material if additional plant starts are needed.
This trailing evergreen ginger is a perfect landscape plant for the suburban garden thanks to its low-growing nature, easily restrained growth and shade-loving capacity. It makes a truly dignified groundcover for the shade garden or a showy specimen amongst other diminutive perennials. It also fits in well with other small woodland specimens in a wild garden.
Winter-hardy through most of USDA hardiness Zone 6 (and maybe even further north), splendid ginger should be planted in a well-prepared organic soil that can be watered during the summer. It’s ideally suited for spaces where a sidewalk or other barriers restrict its rhizome spread. In fact, root restriction concentrates the leaves in a tighter area and makes for a better display.
If you’re like me – always on the lookout for a neat perennial to pop into your garden – then try this ginger – it truly is splendid!