Things Unseen – Hidden Forest Gems

Things Unseen is a special series of posts to get you and the people where you live thinking about the unseen or under-appreciated wonders of the natural world and what lies beyond.  It is April 2020, and the world has become a very different place as a tiny virus makes its way across the planet.  At a time such as this, we are sobered and humbled by the fact that this vast universe holds much that is far beyond our understanding and certainly our control. Perhaps we are meant to enjoy and ponder it more, as well as the things that really matter in this life… things unseen.  Just a thought. What do you think? 


Western Washington – Take a walk in one of our lowland forests and chances are, you will notice a sea of sword and bracken fern dominating the forest floor. As lovely as the ferns can be, I highly recommend taking the time to intentionally look for hidden plant gems quietly growing near the edges of the trail.

One of my favorites is wild ginger. For years, I completely missed this lovely plant. Low growing heart-shaped leaves blend in with the sea of green undergrowth and hide an exotic brownish purple blossom, which appears April through June in coastal forests. The flower will almost always be nestled under the leaf so you have to do some investigating to find it.

Wild Ginger

Try gently rubbing wild ginger leaves to release a lemony ginger fragrance, but don’t be tempted to eat it. Although native people used this plant for medicinal purposes, the FDA website states that this plant is unsafe for internal use. Enjoy a visual and olfactory feast instead.

Ants and flies that emerge from the ground in the spring easily find the ginger bloom (or seeds) right at their level and become willing pollinators and seed spreaders. Wild ginger will eventually spread by ant carried seed or underground offshoots as a beautiful ground cover, found alongside trillium, bleeding heart and other spring bloomers.

Without a human caretaker, forests must attend to their own gardening tasks.  Undercover operations are common and the hidden, dark realm of soil constantly shifts with subtle movement as plants advance and retreat. Perhaps the most common strategy for covering new territory on the forest floor is a structure known as a rhizome.

Rhizomatous plants spread into areas conducive to growth while at the same time help to shield the soil and its host of micro organisms from the potentially destructive effects of wind, sun and erosion.  They also act as excellent energy storage lockers, which help plants survive during winter. In the forest, rhizomatous plants are abundant. Ferns, stinging nettle, skunk cabbage, trillium, bleeding heart, bunch berry and iris all have an underground rhizome structures.

Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle – Do not touch this plant! Tiny hairs loaded with irritating chemicals cover the underside of the leaves. Even brushing past them with bare skin will result in a stinging sensation that can last for days.

So what is the difference between a root and a rhizome?  Roots make up the underground part of a plant that carries out the functions of stability, water/nutrient absorption as well as energy storage.  Rhizomes are actually modified stems that typically grow horizontally underground.  Because they are stems, they have nodes that sprout roots, vertical stems and leaves growing from them, whereas roots do not.

Once present, rhizomes can literally sprout a new plant anywhere as it pushes horizontally across the landscape. Some rhizomatous plants, like wild ginger, spread slowly but others like stinging nettle or fern rapidly claim new ground. Gardeners must be very careful when introducing plants with rhizomes into their backyard gardens. In the underground world of things unseen, some rhizomes will stealthily spread. And spread. And spread some more.  Any effort to get rid of them can be an exercise in frustration due to the fact that even a small piece of rhizome left in the ground can start growing and spreading again.

During these glorious days of spring, don’t miss the signs of plants quietly on the move. When you track wonder, take time to investigate things often unseen under broad flat leaves and showy ferns. You just might find a hidden gem or two.

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

(c) SPegany
Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

When and Where – April, May, June Lowland forests where lots of shade and moisture loving plants grow. Think heart shaped. The leaf is very dark green and usually grows no more than about 8 inches above the ground. Look around the trunks of trees. Once you find the tell tale heart shaped leaf, gently move it aside to see if you can find the blossom. Don’t be fooled by the False Lily of the Valley which also has heart shaped leaves, but the vein pattern is entirely different.

Wild Ginger
Wild ginger

References and Resources

Seattle Times – Wild Ginger

Washington Native Plant

Washington Native Plant Society

Hanson’s Northwest Native Plant Database

Real Gardens Grow Natives

The Spruce – Rhizomes – The chemistry of stinging nettle 

Images: SPegany, ©2020

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