In honor of May being Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, I am continuing to feature beloved Asian plants. This time the wonderfully tasty spice: Ginger [Zingiber officinale]. This plant is used in numerous traditional herbal medicine cultures including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In TCM it is known as Gan Jiang when dried and Sheng Jiang when fresh.
Ginger in History
Ginger is a tropical perennial native to hot and humid environments. Interesting fact: It has been grown by humans for so many years that no one really knows where it originally grew wild on it’s own before humans began cultivating it. This spice no longer grows wild and is only found growing where it was started by humans. These type of plants are known as cultigens. Still, ginger has strong historical roots in most Asian cultures.
Ginger in the Kitchen
Even though I cook regularly, I have taken my time getting reacquainted with this spice. Ginger never ceases to amaze with her versatility in the kitchen and the medicine cabinet. I like to use the leaves in herbal teas when the root would be too strong, and to use the skins in bone broth. More recently, I have been growing ginger in our garden from rhizomes (underground storage organ) that sprouted during storage. This allows me to grow more while subsequently reducing food waste. Zero Waste Tip: Sprouted onions, garlic, ginger, and turmeric may all be re-grown in the garden instead of tossed on the compost heap!
Although it may seem nit-picky, I’d like to mention when using ginger as a culinary spice, it is important to differentiate between the green/young and mature roots. Green ginger, the younger underdeveloped rhizome, is milder in flavor. It can also be used fresh without the burn typically associated with the mature root. You can harvest this young root around 3-4 months after planting it. The mature rhizome is what you are likely to see in the average supermarket produce section. This stage will take 9 months or more to grow.
If you’re just too impatient for either, harvest some of the leaves and stems instead. But no more than 1/3 of the plant at a time or you will exhaust the root. The leaves and tender stems are edible and make great ingredients due to their mild flavor. I have never seen ginger leaves commercially available in my area. So growing the plant gives me access to something I would otherwise not have. Growing my own also allows me control over when I harvest and how the herb is handled. This helps me ensure it is high quality.
Ginger can be grown outdoors in protected areas that do not experience freezing temperatures. It also thrives as a potted houseplant and on relatively sunny apartment balconies. Too much sun in a dry climate can dry out the leaves, so if you have brutal sun, provide afternoon or dappled shade. This plant also grows happily as an understory plant to bananas. One thing ginger demands is moist but well drained soil. If you’re growing it in a pot that may have even a chance of poor drainage, lay the root in a shallow depression on the soil and only cover it halfway. If you’re planting it in clay soil, also leave the root halfway uncovered for the same reasons. It will send roots down into the soil and shoots up. I suggest this approach while you’re first learning to grow ginger so you don’t overwater and cause root rot.
The leafy tops will die in a light freeze, but the rhizome may remain protected to re-sprout if the freeze doesn’t reach it. As the recent winter storm in February showed us, even in south Texas we are not exempt. You may want to dig it up, pot it and bring it inside for the winter. Word of warning: ginger does go dormant in cooler climates during the winter, so do not panic if it loses its leaves.
Ginger as herbal medicine is wonderfully complex. Dried and fresh have differing medicinal properties, as observed by differing names in TCM and Ayurveda. However, for most purposes, fresh and dried can be used interchangeably. A notable exception would be if you are seeking the anti-viral properties, you are better served using the fresh juice instead of the dried powder. Ginger can be used as a tea, tincture, bone broth, or syrup. It can be juiced, candied, or turned into a jam or infused honey. It can be encapsulated, used as a poultice, or used in a salve or infused oil. The list is infinite.
Most famous for its anti-nausea properties, ginger is a useful remedy for motion sickness, morning sickness, and even nausea related to chemotherapy. I like to carry candied ginger on long trips to settle my stomach, as commercial ginger ales rarely have actual ginger in them. My mother-in-law used a ginger tincture from Laughing Lily Herbal Apothecary (one of the featured businesses on our HHH Supported Businesses page) during her radiation treatment to fight her nausea and help stimulate her appetite.
Like its cousin, Turmeric [Curcuma longa], ginger is an excellent anti-inflammatory. It is also great for maintaining digestive health and is served alongside sushi with the secondary duty as a palate cleanser. Because of its ‘hot’ properties, it is used for improving poor circulation and relieving menstrual cramps too. A warm footbath of ginger tea is a great way to relieve tired and achy feet after a long day.