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Asarabacca

Asarum europaeum

  • Name also: Hazelwort, Haselwort, Wild Nard, European Wild Ginger
  • Family: Birthwort Family – Aristolochiaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Rootstock creeping. Forms stands.
  • Height: Under 10 cm (4 in.). Stem creeping. Fragrance of turpentine.
  • Flower: Perianth urceolate (pitcher-shaped), top brownish, inside reddish brown, 1–1.5 cm (0.4–0.6 in.) long, fused, 3-lobed, hairy. Stamens 12. Pistils 6. Flowers solitary in axils, nodding.
  • Leaves: Opposite, long-stalked, overwintering. Blade round, with entire margins, sparsely hairy, shiny, dark green.
  • Fruit: 6-parted capsule.
  • Habitat: River-bank broad-leaved forests, stream valleys. An escape and left-over from cultivation in parks, gardens, waste ground.
  • Flowering time: May–June.
  • Endangerment: Near threatened, protected in all of Finland.

Asarabacca grows ferally in Finland in Iitti in southern Häme, on the banks of the River Taasiajoki and its tributaries in this northern outpost of its habitat, hundreds of kilometres from the border of its united habitat. The species grows naturally in clayey broad-leaved forests and young forests. It can even grow in the gloom of a spruce copse, but the most abundant stands develop in forests beside river banks. It is perhaps impossible to explain how asarabacca has ended up in Iitti – it has been proposed however that it could even be the legacy of a stand that was transplanted there to be used medicinally.

Despite being poisonous – or perhaps because of it – asarabacca has been widely used in Europe in many ways, especially as a medicinal herb and repellent. It has been used to ward off moths, as rat poison, textile dye, and in folk medicine as e.g. a diuretic, emetic and to end pregnancy. The desired effect comes from administering the right dose, which has demanded knowledge and long experience. Nowadays asarabacca’s most important use is probably as shady ground cover in gardens. Its popularity as a garden plant is based on the fact that it can thrive in deep shade. In dense stands its leaves cover the ground quite thoroughly, cutting out the light and space that would feed weeds. The plant blooms in spring, but the flowers are hidden by the leaves and are quite inconspicuous. They bend down to the ground as they open and can even press down into the ground. The flowers are pollinated and the seeds have an elaiosome which attracts insects, especially ants, to carry them around, and dense stands can be found growing around ant hills. Asarabacca can escape into the wild from where it has been planted and grow as a newcomer.

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