Three Heart-Shaped Leaves in Your Woods: Two “Lovely” and One “Heartless”

Plant identification is generally easy when you know the combination of leaf shape and leaf edge, also called leaf margin.

For example, the three species below all have heart-shaped leaves, but very different leaf edges: serrated, scalloped, and smooth.

It’s important to distinguish these three because garlic mustard is troublesome invasive plant, while the other two are native species.

Flowers of garlic mustard
Garlic mustard (Photo: Bill Higham)

Do you know the difference in leaves between garlic mustard, wild ginger and largeleaf aster?

Largeleaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla) has a daisy-like flower with many petals that are white to pale purple in color and surround a central disk. The lower leaves are large, scalloped, and heart-shaped, becoming less so higher up on the plant.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has four petals that are small and white, and serrated leaves. It is an obligate biennial, meaning it spends the first year as a rosette of leaves on the ground, and then sends up a flowering stalk and sets seed the second year.

It is obligate, because it dies after two years. However, some biennials can live for many years: in the first year as a rosette of leaves, but dying only after they successfully produce seed, which if annually mowed, could be years later.

Wild ginger plants
Wild ginger (Photo: Richard Bonnett)

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) has flowers that are three-parted and deep red. They are located near the ground between the plant’s two heart-shaped leaves with smooth margins.

Wild ginger’s odor attracts beetles and flies, which pollinate the flower.

The seeds also have an energy-rich appendage called an elaisome that is collected and stored by ants, serving to disperse and sow the seeds! Amazing!