In the plant community, sometimes small, nonchalant species can hold big surprises. Often an overlooked ground cover plant, western wild ginger is one such example. Lying low on the forest floor, it would be easy to walk past or even trample this unique plant. But a closer look will reveal a treasure worth discovering – wild ginger and its unusual, hidden flowers.
Western wild ginger is an obscure but ubiquitous member of the redwood forest; it can be difficult to spot but is both common and easily recognizable once located. Its trademark identifiable feature is the leathery, reniform (heart-shaped) leaf. Ginger leaves often sprout in spreading mats across the forest floor, blanketing the redwood duff with small green hearts. This is due to the plant’s subsurface persona – wild ginger grows from a rhizome, an underground stem which spreads through the soil sending out both shoots and roots as it grows.
Another notable characteristic of wild ginger is the aroma – when rubbed or crushed, the leaves give off an aroma reminiscent of culinary ginger (an unrelated plant in a different family). The plant’s rhizome gives off a similar aroma, and both the rhizome and the leaves have been used traditionally by Native Americans to treat stomach aches, intestinal distress, indigestion, and as a general tonic in teas – lending the plant another similarity to culinary ginger.
In the early spring wild ginger begins to flower, growing a small, single inflorescence on a peduncle underneath the leaves. This hidden flower is quite exceptional when discovered and examined closely –a dark brownish-purple, hairy cup terminates with three long, curved appendages. The outer flower is actually a fused sepal tube, concealing the true flower hidden within the cup. As with other members of the Aristolochiaceae family, the flowers are slightly stinky and pollinated primarily by gnats and flies, which are abundant before other flying insects emerge for the summer.
Western wild ginger is a widespread species, occurring from British Columbia east to Montana, and south along the Coast Ranges to the Monterey Bay. The Santa Cruz Mountains are near the southern terminus of wild ginger’s range. Wild ginger prefers moist, shady locations with well-drained soils; in the Santa Cruz Mountains it frequently grows in the upper floodplain of streams and on hillsides above seasonal creeks.
A small plant with a distinctive flower and aroma, western wild ginger is certainly worth seeking out during its flowering window. By early summer the flowers will be replaced with seed pods, and by fall wild ginger will fade back into leafy obscurity in the undergrowth.