One of the newest discovered species of our native asarum (formerly Hexastylis) is Asarum finzelii, from northeastern Alabama. In foliage, the plant resembles both Asarum arifolium and Asarum speciosum. The flowers, however, are quite different from both, as you can see below. It is our hope to get this propagated before too long, so we can work to make it more widely available.
This spring, we flowered the highly confused NC native wild ginger, mistakenly known as Asarum memmingeri in the garden. In reality, it’s never been given a proper name, so we refer to it as Asarum sp. nov. Allegheny Wild Ginger. Below, Patrick explains how this ginger was dropped into a botanical abyss, and what needs to be done to return it to proper recognition, and to correct a cascade of past taxonomic errors. -ta
When I was a boy the tiny-flowered evergreen wild gingers that grew all over our land in Alleghany County, North Carolina seemed like they must be a common species, and should have a name. As a boy of 12, however, I had a hard time placing a name on them since they didn’t seem to fit the photographs in popular wildflower books or match the plants that my grandmother’s flora called Hexastylis virgnica (now Asarum virginicum).
I became obsessed with heartleafs as a child and the curiosity remains strong. When I entered college I was lucky enough to take Dr. Peet’s Ecological Plant Geography class at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Our class, which was all graduate students and me (as a sophomore), was expected to do a project detailing and explaining the range of a particular genus or family of plants. I chose the smooth-leaved evergreen Asarum, then known then as Hexastylis.
I spent the spring semester travelling to every corner of the American South seeking species I didn’t know and trying to fill in the vacant counties in the range maps of those species that I did know. I took countless measurements of calyces and made copious notes on habitat. I was shocked when I travelled to southeastern Virginia to visit the area where Asarum virginicum was likely first collected. These true Asarum virginicum plants were nothing like the “A. virginicum” I was so used to seeing in my boyhood home.
A quick trip to the Earl Core Herbarium at West Virginia University, and later to the Smithsonian, brought to light a serious problem with what botanical taxonomists currently refer to as Asarum virginicum and an even larger problem with what we call Asarum (Hexastylis) rhombiformis and Asarum (Hexastylis) memmingeri.
It seemed as if the Alleghany County plants I had called Asarum virginicum as a child had been mistakenly identified by WVU taxonomist Earl Core as Asarum memmingeri. Complicating this further was that the probable original type specimen for A. memmingeri would later be published under a new name, H. rhombiformis!
To make sense of the cascade of errors, we need to go back further in time. This story begins in 1897 with W.W. Ashe’s publication of The glabrous-leaved species of Asarum of the southern United States in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society. Here, Ashe describes for the first time Memminger’s Heartleaf (A. memmingeri). From the description it is obvious that he is describing a plant with a very small flower with a very narrow opening (7 mm wide or less).
Error #1 occurred when Ashe described the original type locality as Mitchell County, based on a collection by E.R. Memminger. When I was looking for a type specimen, the best option I could find was a specimen collected (in duplicate) by E.R. Memminger himself that he says in his own handwriting represents the type location. During Ashe’s time, it was not required to designate a type specimen, but the problem was that Ashe’s citation of Memminger’s specimen was actually from Henderson County (“Tranquility”, Flat Rock, NC), not Mitchell County.
Type specimen of Asarum memmingeri collected by E.R. Memminger
Error #2 occurred as we fast-forward to 1987, ninety years after Ashe published his work, when L.L. Gaddy described a new species of Hexastylis that occurs in Southwestern NC and Northwestern SC as H. rhombiformis (Asarum rhombiformis (combination not yet made). In this description he cites E.R. Memminger’s specimen from Henderson County, which, is actually the type specimen of Asarum memmingeri as representing his new species H. rhombiformis. Consequently, the name H. rhombiformis is invalid and this plant should be known as A. memmingeri.
Error #3 occurred when J.K. Small of the New York Botanical Garden, Earl Core of West Virginia University and others annotated (attributed) numerous Asarum collections from West Virginia, Virginia, and NC, of an un-named species that they mistakenly identified as A. memmingeri. Blomquist and all modern authors have since combined these tiny-flowered plants with small openings to the calyx tube within a “catch-all” concept of A. virginicum. Other taxonomists since have followed their mistaken identification of A. memmingeri or A. virginicum for these plants that are known to range from WV south to NC.
We know that these plants that J.K. Small, Earl Core, and others called A. memmingeri actually represent the heartleaf from my Alleghany County childhood homestead and surrounding regions that still has no accepted name.
It is time to clear up the confusion and formally describe these plants along with a new, correct scientific name. For our purposes we will refer to them here as Allegheny heartleaf for a common name (in reference to the mountains, which have a different spelling than the NC county, rather than Alleghany County, NC).
In vegetative form, the Allegheny heartleaf is similar to most of its relatives including A. virginicum, minus, heterophylla, and naniflora. They are tightly clumping with leaves that tend to be as wide or wider than long with a broad cordate base. Though I have found populations with some mottling on the leaves, they tend to lack any variegation altogether.
The flowers on the undescribed Alleghany County heartleaf are much smaller in all dimensions and also differ in the tube constriction from both A. virginicum and true A. memmingeri.
The Allegheny heartleaf is found in typical heartleaf habitat: highly acidic, organic duff beneath oaks and pines and often in association with Rhododendron and Kalmia. They are found along the margins of Southern Appalachian fens and small stream swamps as well as along stream banks and on steep rocky slopes and bluffs that are most often north or east-facing.
The natural range of the species seems to be from Watauga/Avery counties North Carolina, north through West Virginia at low to moderate elevations. In North Carolina nearly all populations are located along the New River drainage, though there are outliers along the Yadkin River drainage downstream to Donaha Bluffs in Forsyth County. This taxa is tightly tied to the Appalachian range with outliers into the piedmont in areas with cool microclimates along rivers that originate in the mountains. Between the mountain populations of Allegheny Heartleaf and the coastal Virginia Heartleaf (Asarum virginicum) occurs A. minus, which largely replaces Allegheny Heartleaf in most of the piedmont of North Carolina.
Allegheny Heartleaf was very difficult for me to grow, even in seemingly hospitable microclimates in Clemson, South Carolina. It seemed to survive but only for a short time, gradually declining and producing dwarfed leaves by the 2nd season and then disappearing by the 3rd. I am extremely pleased to have this species growing strong, flowering and producing normal sized leaves for its second season here at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens.
What needs to happen is for Hexastylis rhombiformis to have a name correction to Asarum memmingeri, and for the plant widely known as Asarum memmingeri to finally be named for the first time, hopefully with a specific epithet named for the Allegheny Mountains, which incorporate the heart of its range.
Despite the impending flooding late last week, Patrick, Zac, and I took off to the mountains of western South Carolina for a few days of botanizing. Despite the monsoon-like rains, we managed to visit seven amazing sites. Below is a highlight.
One stop was at a giant granitic outcrop. The rocks are covered in an array of mosses, lichens, and other associated flora, most growing in shallow pockets or organic debris that alternation from inundated to bone dry for months.
Large patches are covered with the colorful, 1″ tall, annual sedum, Diamorpha smallii, commonly known as Elf orpine.
Another site also had large granite flatrocks, but with a complete different flora. Here, two dryland ferns, Cheilanthes lanosa and Cheilanthes tomentosa formed large patches, along with the amazing Selaginella tortipila.
The more shaded slopes were filled with amazing clones of the dwarf painted buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica, which at this site, mature at only 3-5′ in height. In most other area, the same species matures at 10-20′ tall. The flower colors here ranged from peachy yellow to screaming orange red.
One of our next stops was an amazing watershed where, Shortia galacifolia grows by the acre, carpeting the mountain side. This is the world’s largest population of this amazing native. We even found it growing epiphytically on a rock, perched in the middle of a stream.
The native Micranthes micranthidifolia grew along the moist stream banks. This is the first time I’ve seen this, since I first purchased the plant back in 1995 from the former We-Du Nursery. In that case, I killed it, before getting it planted.
Another plant I’ve killed in my previous attempt was the native climbing fern, Lygodium palmatum. Here, it grew with the easy-to-grow Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides.
The difficult to grow Asarum heterophyllum was scattered throughout our several mile trek, almost all plants were the solid green leaf form.
Far easier to grow is the native Hydrangea radiata (formerly known as H. arborescens var. radiata), with its shimmering white-backed leaves.
As we walked along the towering cliffs, the red fruit adorning the carpets of partridge berry, Mitchella repens glistened in the rain.
Several patches of mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum had some of the largest foliage that I’d ever seen, measuring 1′ in width.
Not far away we saw some of the most strikingly patterned form of Pachysandra procumbens we’ve ever seen.
We almost got through the entire trip without finding a single variegated or colored foliage mutant, when not far from the parking area, we spotted a streak sport on Kalmia latifolia.
Below is our incredible, but soaking wet, botanizing team (l-r) Adam Black, Bartlett Arboretum, Zac Hill, JLBG, Patrick McMillan, JLBG.
Flowering in the garden this week is our Macon, Georgia collection of the southeast US native Asarum arifolium ‘Macon Jars’. Other forms of A. arifolium from further north in it’s range won’t be flowering for several more weeks. We trim the old anise-scented foliage of our asarums so we can better enjoy the amazing floral show of this native woodland perennial. The new leaves will emerge in just a matter of days.
Winter is peak flowering season for many of the amazing wild gingers. We caught Asarum porphyronotum ‘Irish Spring’ in full bloom recently. We remove the old foliage just as they come into flower for better photography. The new foliage begins to emerge just as the flowers fade. Amazing as these are, it requires slowing down to actually notice their amazing flowers, which are pollinated by pill bugs and slugs.
Our 13 year old clump of the evergreen Japanese Asarum asperum is looking superb in the garden this week. Looks like it’s about time to divide this for the first time and start to build up stock so we can share in the future. Winter hardiness is Zone 6-9.
We’re just back from a quick outing to the Flower Hill Nature Preserve in Johnston County, NC…just a few miles from JLBG. This unique coastal plain site contains remnants of species more common in the NC mountains, nearly 5 hours west. The top of the bluff is a small stand of enormous Rhododendron catawbiense, while along the bottom of the hill is a bank of the deciduous Rhododendron canescens.
In the mid-slope area, we found Cypripedium acaule (pink ladyslipper orchid), just waiting to be photographed. Sadly, it’s one of the most difficult species to transplant, so just enjoy these in situ when you find them.
There were beautiful masses of the evergreen groundcover galax, growing on the eastern slope.
It was particularly great to see the Asarum vriginicum in full flower. True Asarum virginicum is rarely seen in cultivation, and the diversity of flower color was outstanding.
One of the fun reasons to grow plants from seed is that each seedling is different…unless you’re growing highly bred annuals. Most non-hybrid seedlings will be under the bell curve, meaning they all look and behave relatively similar. As plant collectors, we get excited when one appears that falls outside the bell curve. An example is our wild ginger selection, Asarum maximum ‘Floragasma’, which has both far more flowers than we typically see with the species, but it also flowers 2-3 weeks before our other clones. Winter hardiness is Zone 7b-9b.
Another of the mid-winter flowering species of wild ginger is the Chinese Asarum ichangense. Here is a green leaf form of this easy-to-grow wild ginger in late January from the top. If you push aside the leaves, you’ll see the amazing floral show, hidden beneath. Winter hardiness in Zone 6b-8b, and possibly colder.
Asarum hypogynum ‘Artist’s Palette’ is in full flower here at JLBG in late January. Despite being first published in 1915, this little-known species is very poorly represented in ex-situ plant collections worldwide. Our clone is a division from a wild plant we brought back from our 2008 botanical expedition to Taiwan. The foliage on this species is some of the largest in the entire genus. For us, Asarum hypogynum starts flowering in late summer and continues most of the winter. We are working to eventually be able to share this with other collectors. Hardiness is Zone 7b and warmer.
Asarum minus ‘Cupid’ is one of our heavily silver patterned selections of our native wild ginger. When cold weather arrives, the evergreen leaves take on a lovely purple cast. This is an excellent clonal selection we made in 1994 from a construction site, and one we hope to offer in the future though Plant Delights Nursery.
One of several rare wild gingers we grow is Asarum lewisii, which has a small native range limited to central NC and adjacent Virginia. In the wild, the evergreen Asarum lewisii is quite unique in only producing a single leaf every few inches to over 1′ apart when growing in leaf duff. In the garden, however, leaves are much more dense as you can see in the photo from the JLBG gardens this week. It’s ashamed it doesn’t sell better when we offer it through Plant Delights.
I grew up as a child spending most of my time botanizing the woods from a ridiculously early age. One of the native plants I’ve known since my earliest adventures is Asarum arifolium, which was the most common wild ginger in our region. Over the last 60 years, I’ve undoubtedly seen tens of thousands of this species.
I was fascinated by the variability in the amount of silver in the leaves, the contrast in the leaf pigmentation, the propensity to clump tightly or run, along with some slight variations in flower color and size. Below is a form that makes a particularly tight clump with good contrasting leaf markings. Despite the occasional solid green leaf forms, the one constant has always been the green leaf veins in between the silver blotching….until…
untill I found the oddball below in the woods north of Mobile, Alabama. In the middle of a patch of normal plants was one single individual with reversed leaf patterns…the leaves have a green base with silver veins. I certainly know the pattern, which is typical of several other native asarum species (minus, heterophyllum, lewisii, harperi, shuttleworthii, etc.), but this pattern simply isn’t allowed in Asarum arifolium. We watched impatiently as our plant first flowered, thinking it must be some odd hybrid, but the flowers told a different story…pure Asarum arifolium. We even grew a crop from seed to discover that 50% of the offspring had this same reverse pattern. As we chatted with other botanists about our find, we’ve discovered two other folks who have also found similar individuals, so these “off the bell curve” forms are out there, albeit quite rare.
If you’re only familiar with the smaller flowered asarum (wild ginger), check out the well-endowed Asarum nobilissimum flowering now. This is a selection of the different clones we grow in the gardens at JLBG. Most of the flowers are around 4″ wide.
Asarum nobilissimum; top l-r, ‘Crown Jewel’, ‘King Kong’, #14…mid ‘Netscape’, ‘Deep Throat’, ‘Super Shield’ (young flower)…bottom ‘Iron Butterfly’, ‘Super Shield’, ‘National Treasure. (delavayi).
We find Asarum nobilissimum (1985) is indistinguishable from Asarum delavayi (1895), so most likely the name will revert once the experts agree with our assessment.
April is an amazing month for wild gingers of the genus asarum, in the garden. Here are a few that are looking particularly stunning this week.
Just caught this perfectly posed Asarum splendens in flower on a recent photographing foray in the garden.
There are lots of different gingers to keep straight, starting with a memorable one that was a part of the band of misfits stranded on Gilligan’s Island. Horticulturally speaking, however, ginger refers both to a group of plants in the Zingiberaceae and Aristolochiaceae (birthwort) families. Hardy members of the Zingiber family are plants who mostly flower in the heat of summer, while the wild gingers (asarum) of the birthwort family tend to be mostly winter/spring flowering.
So, while it’s late winter/early spring, let’s focus of the woodland perennial genus asarum, of which we currently grow 86 of the known 177 asarum species/subspecies. In late winter/early spring, we like to remove any of the winter damaged evergreen leaves, which makes the floral show so much more visible. Few people take time to bend down and observe their amazing flowers, so below are some of floral photos we took this spring. View our full photo gallery here.
Asarum, also know as wild ginger, are a deer-resistant woodland perennial. They perform well in moist but well-drained soils. Many are evergreen and will slowly form a dense groundcover. Below is a selection of our North American native Asarum arifolium selected by Plant Delights in 2006 and introduced in 2015.
Asarum flowers are almost alien-like and are born at ground level in late winter. We have many new selections of asarum available this year, so check us out online when you are ready to add wild gingers to your woodland garden.