Asarum speciosum
Plant spotlight

Asarum speciousum

I grew up in a wooded section of West Raleigh, North Carolina, where I as a shy kid, I spent most of my spare time roaming through the woods along Crabtree creek, where Crabtree Valley shopping center would eventually sprout.  One of the most ubiquitous plants in the area was one of our native wild gingers, Asarum arifolium.  Asarum, still known as Hexastylis by southeast taxonomists who can’t get over the idea that the same genus of plants also occurs on the other side of the world, are evergreen perennial members of the Dutchman’s pipe family. 

I would dig up small clumps of wild ginger from the woods and transplant them to our garden down the street, as well as use them in the terrariums I sold as a young entrepreneur. I liked wild ginger, both for the evergreen arrow-shaped leaves as well as for the licorice-ginger scent when the leaves were crushed. The other memorable feature was the small, flowers  resembling a Kerosene lamp shade, that appeared in April at the base of the plant like young suckling pigs.  These unique flowers would have made great show and tell items at school, had any of my young classmates possessed a remote interest in gardening.
It was years later, when I saw a photo of its first cousin, the Alabama native, Asarum speciosum.  I was hopelessly smitten.  What attracted me were the flowers, which were four times as large and much showier than Asarum arifolium, while the foliage was virtually identical. Since Asarum speciosum, however, only occurs in scattered localities in four south-central counties., It took me several expeditions to Alabama before I finally saw it in the wild. My first trip to find it was too early in the season, and without flowers, I had no idea if I was seeing Asarum arifolium or Asarum speciosum.   Finally, in 2006, I hit the jackpot, finding the Alabama wild ginger growing in large masses at the base of another great landscape shrub, Florida anise, Illicium floridanum.
Like Asarum arifolium, Alabama wild ginger is easy to grow in the shade garden, forming a 6” tall x 1’ wide evergreen clump of arrow-shaped evergreen foliage, often patterned with muted silver.  The quarter-sized flowers which look like an owl’s eye are simply stunning, especially on an established clump that can produce several dozen flowers at once.
In the woodland garden, Asarum speciosum is quite easy to grow, especially in regions with warm summer temperatures. Although slightly drought tolerant, the large leaves will temporarily wilt during the heat of the day if the soil gets too dry, so a site with regular moisture and plenty of organic matter in the soil is best. Thanks to the magic of plant cloning, Asarum speciosum is much easier to find for sale than was the case even a decade ago.  There are currently three named clones in cultivation, although none are particularly easy to find. They include Asarum speciosum ‘Buxom Beauty’ (Mt. Cuba), ‘Woodlander’s Select’ (Woodlanders Nursery), and ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ (JLBG/PDN).
I hope this prompts you to explore the amazing world of wild gingers.

– Tony Avent

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