More than 70 species of wild ginger grow in Europe, Asia and North America, including Pennsylvania. Asarums do well in shady, woodland gardens and have dark green, variegated leaves that are rounded or heart-shaped. Flowers grow under the foliage and range from pink to purple to brown. As with Zingiber officinale, the asarums have aromatic rhizomes, but they contain poisonous compounds, so eating them is not recommended.
Covered with brown, papery skin with numerous finger-like protuberances, the rhizome of Zingiber officinale, or culinary ginger, is often referred to as a "hand." Ginger is native to Asia and is a popular addition in Asian and Indian cuisine. It is often referred to as ginger root, but this is a misnomer. What is sold in stores is a rhizome, not a root.
If you want to grow culinary ginger in Pennsylvania, think container garden. Don't expect much in the way of a harvest, but ginger is easy to grow in pots and with the right conditions, you may even get some spectacular flowers. To plant ginger, go to the produce section in the spring and choose a fresh hand with bumps at the ends of the fingers. These are growth buds. Plant the ginger in a pot at least 12 inches in diameter in a potting mix rich in compost. Position the container on a deck, in the garden or in a sunny window. Keep it evenly moist and feed it with a general purpose fertilizer every few weeks throughout the summer.
To harvest your ginger, stop watering it in the autumn. This will cause the leaves to die back and rhizomes to form. Once the plants are dried out, dig up the ginger and use it in cooking. Fresh ginger is usually peeled and then grated before it is added to Asian and Indian dishes. Ginger can also be candied, pickled or used to make tea.