Ginger (Family Zingiberaceae) is a perennial herb that thrives in most parts of southern Asia, Jamaica, Nigeria, and the West Indies. The plant has recently been cultivated in Florida, California, and Hawaii. Purple orchid-like flowers grow on the stalks of the wild plant. The most common part of the plant known for its multi-faceted use is the thick tuberous rhizome root that is brown on the outside but a dark yellowish amber hue on the inside.
Ginger yields an essential oil that is steam distilled from the unpeeled, dried and ground root. The scent is somewhat bitterer than the root but when used in aromatherapy the oil mixes well with sandalwood, cedar wood and patchouli, adding a woody-spicy scent to the mix.
Ginger is a tropical plant that thrives in fertile, moist and well-drained soil. When growing naturally, “cone like spikes three inches long at the end of a 6 -12 inch stalk; corolla composed of two ¾ inch yellow green segments and one purple lip, spotted and striped with yellow; occur between one inch long, overlapping, green bracts (specialized leaves).” Commercial ginger doesn’t flower, and bears no fruit. The ginger plant isn’t very large, not growing more than four feet in height. The leaves are grass like and up to a foot long. The ginger plant requires a lot of water and partial shade.
In commercial growing, the rhizome is broken up and planted about two inches below the surface of the soil and each plant maintains a distance of about a foot and a half apart from each other. The herbaceous ginger plant grows in a clump and spreads slowly by rhizomes.
The ginger plant offers a beautiful array of large, brightly colored flowers that attract insects and wildlife. A mature plant produces clusters of white and pink buds that develop into cheerful yellow flowers.
In the fall, bring the pot indoors and place it in a storage area where the temperature stays above freezing. Allow the tops of the plant to yellow and then trim them off. Moisten the soil once a month to keep the roots viable. In the spring, after all threat of frost has passed, place the pot in a warm shady spot and watch for a new set of shoots. Repot your plant every couple of years.
Start harvesting about four months into the season and choose roots around the outer edge of the pot. At the end of the growing season when the leaves start to fade, you can uproot the plant and take a larger harvest if you want; then replant ginger for a future harvest. In small herbal gardens, a garden fork is ideal. When the rhizomes reach 4 to 7 months of age they’re ready to be used for fresh preparations. Allowing the ginger root to mature slightly longer, 8 to 9 months will produce a root that is more pungent and ideal for dried preparations.
Qualities of Ginger
This stimulating herb is warming to the system. In her book ’10 Essential Herbs’ author Lalitha Thomas describes the properties: “The major active ingredients in ginger are terpenes (quite similar to the chemical action of turpentine) and an oleo-resin called ginger oil. These two, and other active ingredients in ginger, provide antiseptic, lymph-cleansing, circulation-stimulating, and mild constipation relief qualities along with a potent perspiration-inducing action that is quite effective in cleansing the system of toxins.”
Herbalists recognize ginger as a “carrier” herb and often use it in small quantities with other herbs to spread it through the human system at a faster rate.
Ginger in the West
Although ginger has been cultivated for thousands of years in India and China, there are reports of it being used by Romans as far back as the second century as a taxable imported item. In France it was used around the 1200s and made the journey across the English Channel where it was warmly received as a culinary spice, second in popularity to pepper. One pound of ginger was the equivalent to the price of one sheep.
Ginger in China
In China today, half of all herbal prescriptions contain some form of ginger. According to Chinese medicine, there is a huge difference between fresh and dried types of ginger. The fresh root is called Sheng-jiang and is used to chase away pathogens due to its ability to induce sweating. It expels cold, relieves nausea and sweeps away toxic waste.
Fresh ginger root is what you’ll find the most beneficial in easing your colds and flu symptoms. One whiff of a fresh ginger root will have you starting onto your road to recovery. It’s a distinctive scent, highly aromatic, and images of far off lands might come to mind. Once it’s consumed, it radiates outwards, warming your body and clearing away your illness. Fresh ginger can be added to food or brewed into a tea.
Dried ginger root, Gan-jiang, also removes cold, and is useful for stomach pain, diarrhea due to cold deficiency, cough, rheumatism and several other uses.