Asarum canadense (wild ginger)*

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Painting by Debbie Bankert

Artist’s Statement:

This tiny flower huddles under two heart-shaped leaves as if it were hiding from a much larger encroaching world. The flower is covered in tiny hairs on the underside of the calyx lobes growing in every direction, giving neither a sense of organization nor rule. The wild ginger in my painting is approximately five times larger than my specimen which I obtained from the Historic Plant collection at Monticello.

I found it was challenging to paint this plant because the leaves were so large and showy in comparison to the flower. After applying many layers of reds and browns to the flower, I felt it finally commanded the attention it deserved as a sweet and intricate creation standing erect. I hoped in my painting to afford the viewer a “surprise” discovery of its beauty.

Medicinal uses:

Its medicinal uses were varied. Root tea was made to treat indigestion, coughs, colds, heart conditions, female and nervous conditions.( The leaves and roots which have a peppery ginger-like aroma have long been used as a ginger substitute. It was known as a treatment for flatulence. Native Americans valued it highly as a root tea to treat nervous conditions, cramps, to promote sweating, as an expectorant and for fevers and sore throats.

In 1806, on the Voyage of Discovery, Meriwether Lewis used poultice of ginger to treat an open wound: in his journal for June 27, 1806 he noted: “Joe Pott’s leg which had been much swollen and inflamed for several days, is much better this evening and gives him but little pain. We applied the pounded root and leaves of wild ginger from which he found great relief.” It seems likely that Lewis learned the use of ginger as an anti-bacterial agent from his mother Lucy.

A 1970 study found two antibiotic substances in the root. (Sanders p. 84) However, more recent analyses show that this plant (especially the roots) also contains aristolochic acid, a known nephrotoxin and potential carcinogen.(NSD) In 2001, the FDA issued a warning in that aristolochic acid may cause serious renal disease, including cancer.