Growing ginger – The ginger (Zingiber officinale) plant is an herbaceous perennial native to the tropical regions of Asia and India. The root has been used both in Asian cooking and in Chinese medicine for many centuries. Ginger is also grown in Jamaica and West Africa. In the United States, ginger is cultivated in Hawaii.
Ginger is a member of the Ginger plant family Zingiberaceae and is related to turmeric and cardamom. It should not be confused with the wild ginger (Asarum canadense) that is native to North America. Although not related botanically, the roots of the wild ginger have a similar pungent flavor and can be used to cook.
Ginger root is actually a rhizome or underground stem. The knobby elongated rhizome is pale brown in color. The somewhat fibrous flesh is creamy white to pale yellow or red color, depending on the variety.
The ginger plant grows from a creeping rhizome that sends up shoots of new growth. It grows to a height of approximately 2 to 4 feet, with long slender leaves and small yellowish-green fragrant flowers with dark purple markings. The aerial parts of the ginger plant (flowers, stems, and leaves) are not used in cooking or in medicines.
Ginger prefers hot humid conditions, but can be grown in temperate climates during the warm summer months. It does not tolerate frost or temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In temperate climates the ginger plant dies back during the fall and is dormant in winter even when it is brought inside the house.
It is best to cultivate ginger in the spring so that it can be harvested in the fall, when the foliage naturally dies back. To grow ginger, buy a fresh rhizome at the grocery store. Choose one that is 4 to 6 inches long with smooth skin and several small growth buds or knobs. It should be firm to the touch with no soft spots or dents. Cut the rhizome into one or two 2-inch pieces. Make sure to include a few growth buds, which is where the shoots will emerge. Wait a few days to let the cut ends dry out and harden off before planting.
Using a pot large enough to allow the rhizome to grow, fill it three quarters of the way up with soil. Place the rhizome on top and then cover it with one inch of soil. Keep the pot in direct sun and water sparingly until the shoots emerge, in about 2 weeks. Watering it too much in the beginning may cause the rhizome to rot.
Once the ginger plant has established itself in the pot, it can be transplanted into the garden or continue its life as a potted plant for the summer. Ginger grows best in moist well-drained soil, rich in organic matter in partial shade or indirect sunlight. Water frequently but do not allow the soil to stay saturated.
The rhizome is ready for harvesting when it is about 4 to 6 inches in length, usually about 6 to 9 months. If desired, rhizomes can be harvested earlier when they are smaller because the size does not affect the flavor. Dig the rhizome up and remove the stem and leaves. Rinse it with water and allow it to thoroughly dry in the sun if possible. Store the rhizome in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several weeks, or a cool dark place out of direct sunlight.