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Wild Ginger, Flavorful, Fragrant Northern Treasure

Wild-Ginger-Ontario- Hidden medicine and gourmet spice14-06-2013-

Wild Ginger- Asarum Canadense

Not many people are familiar with Wild Ginger.
It is one of those unique, well hidden treasures of the deep woods that some Canadians or Northeastern Americans might come across, but most would not recognize. This may be a good thing. I believe it is on the protected list in Maine as a threatened plant, and I wouldn’t want to see a trend.

Wild Ginger, HiddenTreasure of our Northern Woods
Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadense.  Hidden treasure of our Northern Woods. Used in the Medicinal, Culinary and  Fragrant “Arts”. Photo courtesy of Chris S. Packard

Shade loving and often found on north facing slopes under mixed hardwoods, It clings to humus, wends around rocks, clutching at the surface of the soil and more often than not does a good job stopping soil erosion.

Sleeping Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadense Ancaster Ontatio. Like the rest of us, patiently waiting for Spring. April 2013
Sleeping Wild Ginger Ancaster Ontatio. Like the rest of us, patiently waiting for Spring. April 2013

I would put it in a similar category of useful and highly valuable native plants as our Lady Slipper Orchid , which is almost extinct from encroachment of  roads and cities and from over-harvesting.

Wild Ginger
Wild Ginger (Photo credit: BlueRidgeKitties)

Beautiful large green heart-shaped leaves glow & glimmer with an almost iridescent depth. In the spring they shyly hide beautiful purplish flowers, making them almost invisible. As if they were doing everything they could to not be found or recognized, to hide themselves from prying eyes and greedy hands. Leaves are similar in size, shape, colour and height to the Coltsfoot that grows almost everywhere here. Making it even harder to make a first acquaintance. It took me almost 2  years of false starts,  impulsive roadside pullovers, dashes across  fields, into woods, across streams, being so sure I had, finally, found it, …… and each time, catching myself a little sooner,  my initial excitement tempered with a little more skepticism, as I sought out the telltale’s of those impostors,  Coltsfoot and Wild Violets, blatantly impersonating Wild Ginger. Finally, I assume because the time was right, I was granted a personal audience. Deep in the woods, one on one, while hunting wild Mushrooms. I wasn’t even looking for it at the time!! 

 It’s Latin name is Asarum Canadense. Distinguishing it from its European cousin Asarum Europeaum, which has a little to no aroma and a general resemblance only on the surface. I believe the European version is in general toxic and medicinally acts as an  emetic and Cathartic so beware. Also an abortifacient if I am not mistaken. Though it makes a pretty good shade loving ground cover in Northern climates if anyone.

A dense colony of European wild ginger (Asarum...
A dense colony of European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) at the Botanical Gardens in Münster, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ahhhh Wild Ginger what can I say? You really have to smell it, taste it to know what I’m talking about. Scientifically it does not belong to the ginger family at all, But once you meet it you’ll know immediately why it got its name. Not quite as “hot” as Asian Ginger, but more than makes up for bite in its complex spicy flavour. It has an aroma and taste that gives it extensive possibilities in an infinite number of dishes

In the field of Natural Perfumery, its essential oil is exquisite! There’s nothing like it. I use it  in perfumes, colognes, aftershaves and room sprays. Basically wherever I can. It blends well with Citrus, Woody and Balsamic essential oils, made easily into a  perfume tincture.  It has a high percent of volatile oils so it is worth the effort of distilling the essential oil, and I would love to extract a resinoid or concrete someday soon. I have a feeling it would add even more potential to its use in perfumery.

    An interesting characteristic, is that when steam distilling the essential oil of Wild Ginger, the oil comes over a beautiful Emerald green, but over the course of a few weeks it changes permanently to a rich Amber colour. I know of no other essential oils that behave this way.

My first Distillation of Wild Ginger essential oil, (2004?)
My first Distillation of Wild Ginger essential oil, (2004?). Gorgeous Green, after a few weeks mellows to a rich Amber colour. Just one more thing that makes it unique.

As a tea, the ground rhizomes  are delicious, help ease a sore throat, mix well with other stimulating and spicy tea herbs, fruit or Citrus peels. It is warming and rejuvenating, lovely in the winter and like regular Ginger it encourages good digestion and discourages flatulence. Native North American tribes have historically used it for medicine and ceremony. In the summer I add it to iced tea and Lemonade. As a base for an alcoholic or non-alcoholic brewed Ginger Ale or beer, there is nothing like it!

Wild Ginger complements rice dishes, wild mushrooms, (and regular ones), fowl, Venison, Beef, Lamb, Chicken etc., etc., anything really!! Roasts and stir frys, Casseroles and pasta dishes. Sauces and Salad Dressings. Coarsely grind some  with Mortar and Pestle and throw it in a pot of rice. It will transform it. Each little piece will turn into a flavorful chewy delicious tidbit by the time your rice is cooked, adding not only fragrance and flavor but a unique texture to your rice pot. Though I would not suggest completely replacing Ginger in the kitchen with Wild Ginger*, it creates delightful results anywhere regular Ginger is called for.

Candies, cakes, cookies and confections are a very exiting area to explore with Wild Ginger.  The rhizomes make a wicked candied treat when boiled in sugar-water, then rolled in sugar, keeping unrefrigerated till it is gone, (which I promise you is never long), and the fragrant syrup from this process is perfect as a pancake or ice cream Syrup. If this Candied Wild Ginger is dipped in chocolate, I know of no other home-made confection that could compare. I add ground wild Ginger to fruit and herbal wines, Fruit cocktails and salads. I Have used it as a flavour component in a distilled liqueur, in Elderberry and Dandelion wines. There might be culinary applications it is not suited to at least experiment with. But honestly, I can’t think of even one! I usually add about 1 1/2 times more Wild Ginger to a recipe than regular dried Ginger.

A treat for the senses, Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadenses offers infinite delights in the kitchen and Perfume studio.
A treat for the senses, Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadenses offers infinite possibilities and delights in the kitchen.

If the dried rhizomes are properly stored, whole, not ground, they can keep for up to 8  years without losing their fragrance and potency. (as has been my experience). When Wild Ginger is ground and properly stored, three years is about the length of time before the flavor starts fading. I dare anyone that reads this to keep Wild Ginger in any amount till such time as the fragrance fades!! If you have it, you will use it till it is all gone!

One of my "secret" plots of Wild Ginger is under the cover of this gorgeous fall scene. Another reason fall harvesting is different than Spring.
One of my “secret” plots of Wild Ginger is under the cover of this gorgeous fall scene. Another reason fall harvesting is different than Spring. I can almost smell it!

For the past 14 years I have taken care of some plots of Wild Ginger growing “untended” in our area. (Locations I keep secret and share with only a handful of trusted friends). I harvest yearly in the fall and sometimes in the spring, experiencing the subtle differences each season lends it as I rotate between plots. After much trial and error I have come up with a couple of good harvesting methods that strike a balance between bringing home a bountiful harvest, and leaving behind happy thriving plants. This allows me to harvest every other year or so, and come back to vibrant vigorous growth that shows barely a sign of my presence. A very satisfying feeling. Win win, like good business we all benefit and do well from our relationship. Give and take. Honesty. A happy relationship. 

Bone Harvesting tool for Wild Ginger
Bone Harvesting tool made specifically for Wild Ginger. With a long, very sharp edge, it slides between rhizome and soil, cleanly and quickly slicing it from rootlets. Painless, smooth, and somehow not as obtrusive or discordant as a steel tool. The angled handle and sharpened tip make the design even more functional. It is a joy to work with.

There are many myths, anthropological, cultural and hard to prove theories about not using “Cold Steel” to harvest plants. whether it disturbs the plants energy, or the energies that are exterior to the plant. Mostly theories that are very difficult to prove even with advanced tools. Some things we just have to study or try for ourselves or we will never find out what is fact, what is fiction, what works and what doesn’t.

 I must admit, using bone tools feels like I am working from the inside out, if that makes any sense. As if I am a part of the plant or process, not intruding, disrupting, invading.  Feels more like sharing than taking. Sometimes I can only tell if something really works by how it “feels” to me, or by the results I get, like using Astrodynamics and Astrology to work in harmony with the plants. (As I do with Wild Ginger as well). The resulting products look, smell, and work better, last longer than the mass harvested and processed products I gauge them against. The whole process, in all it’s parts, just “feels” right, so that’s what I do. I also keep a thumbnail or two, extra long, from late Spring into Late fall, specifically for harvesting semi soft stems of flowers and medicinal plants. It’s just what works for me. No one else is obligated to follow suit.

Wild Ginger, Fall 2012 harvest hanging from rafters for essential oil medicinal and culinary applications.
Wild Ginger, Fall 2012 harvest hanging from rafters curing.

I finally took down a few kilograms of fall 2012 harvest Wild Ginger that has hung from my rafters since the fall. I will distill a few Kilograms into essential oil this week, and keep the rest to sell locally and in my online shop.  If anyone is interested in making the acquaintance of my fragrant friend. I’d be happy to grind some up for you, or ship you whole   pieces.

Fall harvest of 2012 is cured, it always seems to mellow in the loveliest way when I make myself wait at least till spring to bring it down and use it

It is ready now to use for all the above mentioned purposes and pleasures, and I will have it set up for sale in my web-store at apothecarysgarden.com  once I get this blog posted and have a break! Here is a link to the Apothecary’s garden shop, Have a look. If you like you can order some for yourself and try it in your own dishes, and please let me know what you think.

Wild Ginger 2012 Harvest. Whole, ground and in pieces. Fresh, fragrant and flavorful, waiting to inspire and share itself.
Wild Ginger 2012 Harvest. Whole, ground and in pieces. Fresh, fragrant and flavorful, waiting to inspire and be shared.

I will post some of my favourite Wild Ginger recipes on my Recipe Page, but please be patient, it may take me a few days to get that organized. So check back if you don’t find anything new. Everything seems to take time!!!

* Wild Ginger belongs to a very large family of plants found around the world. Some of its distant relatives, especially in northern Asia have been found to contain amounts of aristolochic acid which is a carcinogen. As far as I know our Asarum species does not contain these acids in any but trace amounts, if at all. I have not been able to find any information or studies done specifically on our Wild Ginger in this regard, but I do suggest not replacing your use of Ginger completely with Wild Ginger. Everything in moderation.  And educate yourself… Here is a link to the Wikipedia site for Asarum Canadense, if anyone would like to edify themselves further.

Thanks

Dan

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Ladybugs and Daffodils

IMG_4048
IMG_4048 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 Well, we apparently are still in the season of toothaches and heartaches.   Winter.
  Myrrh and the moon took care of the first.
Frankincense and the Sun will, I hope do well for the second. 
    So on that note…..…….
  According to my friend’s emails, spring is already in full swing in England.  I assume, because they are graced by warm Gulf waters. We, in Ontario, however, have no such buffer and will wait for weeks yet till ice, snow and permafrost  move on and allow us to engage the soil productively.  You can’t sow seeds in soil that is as hard and cold as ice.
       This post is for us poor ice-bound farmers and gardeners, still waiting and longing for  warmer fertile days, for Ladybugs and Daffodils.  On the bright side, it gives us more time to plan, be creative, prepare ourselves, to anticipate,,,and, I wonder if we enjoy our summer more than those spoiled Brits with their extra month of summer and their balmy winter. Ha!    Either way, best to enjoy and make the most of what we have .  This post is for those who wait with me, living physically close to  “The Apothecary’s Garden” at the Teaching gardens at Churchill Park. Those who can plan, dream and break soil with me in Westdale when it is finally released to us again.
 
Butterfly Bush and Viceroy Butterfly, Hamilton 2010
Butterfly Bush and Viceroy Butterfly, Hamilton 2010
Hi everyone;
 Another season is about to start. We can all feel it in the air. Though we may yet get a late March or April dump of snow, I am sure I’m not the only one smelling that inspiring aroma of the soil stirring and waking beneath our feet. Not the only one already preparing strategies for this years gardens.
    Between roots, shoots, seeds and cuttings, we will have a bounty of new young plants to share with the community. Spring culling will be one of our first jobs in the garden. As a teaching garden our focus is on maintaining a representative plant or grouping of each specimen showcased in the garden. This means we will be composting or giving away a variety of medicinal, culinary and aromatic plants. Our first choice is to share as many as we can.
  So tell your friends, share a link to this page, spread the word. There is no obligation associated with the plants we are sharing, though we do need volunteers in the garden for  spring and fall “cleanups”, and for ongoing summer watering and care.
If anyone can contribute in some way to the garden this season, we would welcome the support.
If not, no worries, just enjoy the plants. This is after all a community garden.
 We will post the dates of the culling and plant “giveaway”, ( and call for volunteers), on this Facebook page once we get our calendar organized.

Though the Apothecary’s Garden’s focus is on medicinal, culinary and aromatic plants, there is another beautiful old garden on the grounds that we have not had the time or manpower to reclaim.

"Plant Lovers Garden" Churchill Park 2010
“Plant Lovers Garden” Churchill Park 2010
   “The Plant Lovers Garden”, is a  lovely walled-in courtyard that houses a variety of growing environments. Originally built and maintained by the RBG auxiliary, It featured a spectacular collection of exotic and unusual specimens nestled among its rock gardens, stone paths and water features. After years of neglect, overgrowth and theft, it is a sad sight. Each season we manage to keep most of the weeds from choking out what is left of the collection and water it when needed, but it is still in a steady decline and must get a bottom to top renovation before it is too late.
Papaver Somniferum Apothecary's Garden
Papaver Somniferum Apothecary’s Garden
   In conversations with the city 3 years ago, it was suggested that after the Apothecary’s Garden was renovated, the city would work with the community to re-establish the Plant Lovers Garden as well.
If we can get the volunteer manpower and pitch a proposal to the city, it is likely they will support renovating the Plant Lovers Garden and supply whatever materials we need. Perhaps even contribute funds. They have been extremely responsive and supportive of all our efforts till now.
 If anyone is interested, has some ideas, time or resources to share, or would like to take part in re-establishing this beautiful courtyard garden, please let me know, we can use all the help we can get.
If we can get enough volunteers organized for this project, we can approach the city with a plan, and save this unique landmark and peaceful retreat.
    This is a general list of plants we will have available to share with the community in the spring.  We don’t know how many plants we will have, so it will be on a first come first serve basis. We do not have pots or containers at this point so “BYOP” and if you have extra we could probably put a small number to use.

  We also have a wish list of plants we hope to acquire for the garden, it is by no means complete and input from the community is welcome. So if there are any plants you would like to see in our Apothecary’s Garden, or if you have access to one of the plants on our wish list, please leave me a note.

Monarch & Tiger Lily Hamilton Ontario
Monarch & Tiger Lily Hamilton Ontario
Thanks and hope to see you in the Garden this year
Dan Riegler

Spring 2013 Plant sharing list 

Lemon balm

Skullcap, (Lateriflora)
Baikal skullcap, (Chinese)
Elderberry
Anise hyssop
Lavender
Hyssop

Bergamot

Marshmallow
Comfrey
Sweet flag
Blue flag
Hoary Mountain mint
Chocolate Mint
Spearmint
Chives

Bugle
Iris
Yarrow

Tansy
Hops
Perennial flax
Echinacea
Valerian
Poppy
Oregano
Thyme
Pennyroyal

St. John’s wort

Calendula
Russian tarragon
Angelica
Germander
Sweetgrass
Lovage
Clary Sage
Sage

Wood Betony
Prairie sage
Wormwood

Ladies mantle

 

 

Plant wish list for Apothecary’s Garden Churchill Park

Arnica Montana
Bearberry
black cohosh
Blue cohosh
Cost Mary
Cowslip
Elecampane
Lobelia
Madder
Wintergreen