Gardening Unplugged - Asarum in the Garden

Gardening Unplugged - Asarum in the Garden

Published January 18, 2023 Updated March 13, 2023

Shop for Asarum at Plant Delights Nursery

In this episode of Gardening Unplugged,Tony Avent leads a group of visitors through the woodland gardens at JLBG and discusses one of the most under-utilized winter blooming perennials, Asarum. This video was recorded during our Winter Open Nursery and Garden Days.

Asarum species Tony mentions in this talk:

  • Asarum harperi
  • Asarum nobilissimum
  • Asarum hatsusimae
  • Asarum porphyronotum
  • Asarum asperum



Video Transcription

Okay, today's talk is going to be about the genus Asarum or, as we know them commonly, wild gingers. So, this is what a wild ginger looks like and we just worked on this clump a little yesterday for a class. They’re known [as wild ginger] because of the fragrance. So, pass that around. And it does smell like ginger, sort of an anise. So, it's been used for many years.

The current thing that wild gingers are gaining popularity for are for cancer drugs. They’re doing a phenomenal amount of research, most of it coming out of China, for the cancer fighting properties and it’s really fascinating.

Part of the problem they're running into because it’s been a medicinal plant for years in China, is trying to separate the species. Because what happens over in China, is the collectors go out and they just gather whatever they can find. Well, one might cure you and another might kill you and it’s been a little tricky. So, they’re now actually doing DNA work over in China for medicinal value for these.

Some asarums are evergreen, some are deciduous

Some asarums are evergreen, some are deciduous. So, this would be an evergreen one. If you here yesterday, before we butchered it, it was full of leaves. So, one of the neat things about them is they really give you a great winter interest in the garden. What we do is come in right before they flower, and we remove the leaves in the center. So come over here and you'll see what we’ve done. We’ve simply will go in like this well just sort of pull those leaves out. And this is just getting ready to come into flower here. And I think some of these flowers are fully opened. Let’s see if I can pull one out. In rural North America, they call these pigs in a trough because this one looks very much like little pigs. Some can be as big as ...this big. So, some of the flowers are really quite large.

These are interesting in that they are pollinated by pill bugs, or sowbugs. If you know those little things...roly polys, that roll around, that’s what pollinates them. So, if you get a chair and pull up right there you can sit there and watch, and they go in one and they just roll around in there and then they come back out. If you take that out, you can see this is the male and female pieces that are right in there, right on that. This is all just made to attract people to buy them. But that’s the male and the female and you can look, if you’ve got really good eyes. And then the seed forms right down here in the base. So, once it finishes flowering, we can actually come in and break that apart and its full of seed. Really small, they’re just starting to form now. But you come in later...they never get very big, but you can grow these from seed.

Asarum are pollinated by pill bugs

Most people grow these from divisions. They're very easy from divisions. If we were to divide this clump now, I could probably get somewhere around 80-85 plants out of that one clump. We actually just did a video online if you are on YouTube, go over there and look for “Dividing Asarums” and you’ll see what we do. I just pulled this off yesterday as I was dividing it. That is a division right there. So that’s all you need to get you a new plant going. So that’s your new leaves, there’s your roots and there’s the base and that’s the part that’s the key, is having that base right there where the leaves join. As long as you get that you’ve got a new plant. So, you can come in and stick that in just like that and that’s all you need to do.

Q: You make it look so easy.

A: It is so easy. It really is.

People make gardening look so complicated. They give you all these rules and things you have to do and this and that and it’s not that complicated. I don’t know why they make it seem that way. But it really isn’t.

So, you can take that whole clump up if I was wanting to dig more up.

Q: What makes it complicated is the soil and the leaves fighting.

A: The soil, okay, now there you go. Now getting the soil right.

Asarum are not easy to grow in pots

So, I’m just... see how easy that was? I just popped out 2-3 more plants right there. See each of those, that one’s got its flowers on it. So, all of those are ready to go. So, you can either leave the leaf on it, or cut the leaf off, if you wanted to cut that off. If you want to stick them in pots, you can stick them in pots. There not really easy to grow in pots unless you have really good soil in a pot. That’s probably the one thing I would tell you don’t try is sticking them in a container because if you don’t have really, really high-end top-quality soil, they will die in a pot. But they’re great in the ground. But your right, you want good soil in the ground.

So, each of those then can be planted. We’re going to stick that right in the ground just like that.

Q: So that’s not the ginger you use for cooking?

A: No, not the one you use for cooking. This is the...there's a lot of things called ginger which is why we don’t use common names or try not to because... yeah.

Q: Ginger beer

A: Ginger beer, yes. I don’t know if you could make beer out of that or not. I can’t say that I’ve tried.

Alright, let’s look at a few more. I think we have some over here. Alright, so again, were looking for the flowers and they tend to hide under the leaves and there it is. So, we just pull those leaves away and there’s the flower.

Q: You don’t care about the leaves that are there?

A: Nope, Nope, new leaves will come. So, the new leaves are already starting to form. So new leaves are ready. So, because I want to see the flowers. I mean, that’s why I grow them. I grow them for the leaves, I grow them for the flowers. But all those old leaves that have any kind of damage. See how that one got a little damaged? Just pop that off and we just let the flowers show. Some are very floriferous and some only have one flower. That one got a little beat up.

They’re really fascinating plants. And if you make it around to the front garden, there’s really some beautiful ones with white and purple patterns in those. You all can pass that around.

Q: What is that pollinated by?

A: Sowbugs, little roly polys.

Q: Really?

A: Em-hmm.

So, you can see as we go through there is a lot of small ones and these have not been in the ground very long. Generally, from a single division, in good soil you’re looking at about 3 years to have a nice sized clump.

So, let’s go find some more in flower. So just like we did on that one, if you look down here at the base, hanging around, the flowers are just starting to form. So, some are later. Some are a... they bloom anywhere from October really through May. So, you’ve got a very long bloom season. Each species is a little different. Now in almost all cases, the natural color of the flowers is purple. So, what were always looking for is the odd balls. Especially what we know of as albinos. So, this is one of the Chinese ones that we pulled out that’s a really interesting albino form. So come take a look at the flowers on this. So, I’ve already come in and taken the foliage off. So that’s got probably, I don’t know, 150 flowers there on one clump. And so again, we could divide that. There are easily 250 plants in there. So, there really incredible shows. Alright.

Now this is one of our natives. This is Asarum harperi. This is native to down in Georgia and this one makes a ground cover. Most of the ones we’ve looked at so far were clumpers. So, some clump and some run, depending on the species. But see how nice that looks all through the wintertime? And that one will be flowering in about another 6-8 weeks. It’s a little later than some of the other ones we’ve looked at.

Let’s go down to Mystic Creek area. I think I’ve got some nice ones down there.

And considering these leaves have been through an entire winter, the leaves actually look pretty good but well be taking those off soon so we can see the flowers, which are not open yet. But this is one of the Asian ones, Asarum asperum. So, this is why we really like them. In foliage, they look very similar to a plant called cyclamen, which you see behind you. And see how very similar the foliage is? Now cyclamen are summer dormant, these actually go all year. But if you see the two, a lot of people look at them and think - well that looks the same. And it does look very similar but they’re completely unrelated. If you come back by for our spring open house this will be in flower.

Asarum are all around the world

This is Asarum nobilissimum. This has the largest flower of any of the asarums. Each flower is that large. It’s really incredible. We’ve got actually 3 offering in the nursery. We finally built up enough. And this one does run so it’s made a 3' patch in about 12 years. So, it’s not fast. And then up here, we’ve got a really interesting looking one in bloom. This is one from the Japanese islands, off the southern coast of Japan. If anybody’s ever heard of Okinawa, that’s where this is from. And there’s actually 7 of the rarest asarums in the world are from those islands, down in the southern Ryukyus. So, you can see how different that looks, this is Asarum hatsusimae. And the leaves are just coming out, so we’ve taken the old leaves off. So, it’s really a fascinating plant. So, of all the Asarums, the US has the smallest number of species after Europe. Europe only has one. US has now, I think were probably up to about 8-10. Japan and China have the majority of them. That’s really the area that’s just loaded with asarum. So, they are all around the world.

Okay, here’s another, we’ve just taken the foliage off and take a look at the flowers on this. This is Asarum porphyronotum, this is another of the Chinese species. So that’s got a good, probably 25-30 flowers in there. So, the flowers are really ornamental if you just get rid of the old leaves so you can see them. And getting rid of the leaves does not have any effect on the plant because its already got the new leaves built inside there. Already got the energy. So, they’re just waiting to pop.


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