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Zingiber officinale
ZIN-jih-ber uh-fiss-ih-NAL-ay
Family Zingiberaceae
Herbaceous perennial
May reach 6 feet in height in hot, humid areas
Flowers produced in summer
Hardy in Zones 9 and 10

As a child, did you enjoy gingerbread or gingersnaps with a glass of cold milk for after-school snacks, or a delicious glass of giner ale when you were in bed with an upset stomach? The realization that the lumpy rhizome in the produce section of the grocery store and the tan powder in the can is the same spice for these tasty treats is somewhat shocking.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale), not to be confused with native wild ginger (Asarum canadense), is a native of hot, humid Southeast Asia. It belongs to the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, some of whose members are cultivated in greenhouses for their flowers or ornamental foliage. Others, such as turmeric (Curcuma longa) and ginger, are grown for their rhizomes (fleshy roots).

The ginger plant is a perennial. Each spring it produces reedy leafstalks about 2 feet high. The green leaves are narrow and pointed, about 7 inches long by 3/4 inch wide. The flower head, a dense spike 3 inches long, is produced on a separate stalk that arises from the rhizome. The flowers are yellow or white, the surrounding bracts, green (windowsill specimens aren’t likely to bloom). In nature, the stalks die back after flowering. Each year’s growth extends the rhizome. As cultivated forms are sterile, plants are propagated by division of rhizomes in the spring.

Gingerroot that is to be ground into powder is harvested when fully ripe and then washed, boiled, peeled, and dried in the sun. The West Indies are said to produce the best dried ginger. Rhizomes to be candied are harvested “green” because younger roots are less likely to be fibrous.


Ginger has been cultivated for centuries in India and Southeast Asia for medicinal uses and as a flavoring spice. Confucius and Dioscorides mention it in their writings. Arab traders introduced it to Europe, and the Romans brought it to England. Today it is grown in many parts of the world: much of the fresh gingerroot sold in this country in recent decades has come from Hawaii.

In many cultures, ginger has been used for centuries to aid digestion (in humans and domestic animals) and relieve symptoms of colds and other ailments. So the ginger ale you may have sipped as a child had some health benefits in addition to tasting good. Ginger is available in capsules as a motion-sickness preventive. Chinese cooks add sliced ginger to fish and meat to neutralize odors; traditionally it was thought to “absorb any evil” in the food. They also used it minced for flavoring. As if that weren’t enough, “old Chinese wives” recommended rubbing gingerroot on balding scalps as a hair restorative. Today, we enjoy ginger in a multitude of culinary delights, from preserves, chutneys, and baked goods to main dishes of meat, fish, or vegetables.

Growing it

It is easy to grow ginger in the greenhouse or indoors. Where summers are hot and humid, it can be grown outside, but it will not tolerate high winds or cold. It prefers fertile soil and partial shade, and should be rested in the winter after the stalks have dried back.

Start with fresh ginger root from the grocery store. Select a plump specimen; avoid shriveled rhizomes or those with sunken or moldy areas. Sprouts will grow from the “eyes” on the rhizome, much as potatoes sprout. Plant the rhizome with the eyes at the soil surface.

If you don’t care about producing a ginger plant with 2-foot leaves but would just like to keep your fresh gingerroot from turning to slime in the refrigerator between stir-fry dinners, you can plant the rhizome in a flowerpot in moist sand. Exhume it when you need a piece for cooking and bury the rest. It might even grow, if conditions are right.

To crystallize your own ginger

Try crystallized ginger in fruit salads or ginger cookies, or dipped in bittersweet chocolate for an elegant treat. You might want to take the time to make your own. This recipe can easily be doubled.

2 cups of 1/4-inch-thick slices of peeled or scraped gingerroot
11/2 cups sugar
1/2 lemon, sliced
1 cup light corn syrup

First day: Cover the ginger with water in a saucepan and bring slowly to a boil. Cover and simmer gently until tender, about 20 minutes. Add 1/2 cup sugar, stir well, and return to a boil. Remove from the heat. Let stand, covered, at room temperature overnight.

Day Two: Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the sliced lemon and the corn syrup. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand overnight.

Day Three: Bring to a boil, stirring often. Stir in 1/2 cup of sugar, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Stir in the rest of the sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let stand overnight.

Day Four: Bring to a boil. When the syrup drops heavily from the side of a spoon and the ginger is translucent, remove from heat and drain. Save syrup; it makes a delicious sauce. Dry ginger slices on a wire rack overnight. When it’s well dried, roll the ginger in granulated sugar and store in tightly covered glass jars.

Triple Gingersnaps

What’s better than a gingersnap on a cold winter afternoon? A ginger-ginger-ginger snap! These cookies pack a lot of flavor, and last for quite a while—if you hide them.

1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1/4 cup dark molasses
21/4 cups unbleached flour
11/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons finely grated fresh gingerroot
1/2 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
Granulated sugar

Cream the butter and brown sugar. Beat in the egg and molasses. Sift the dry ingredients and stir into the butter mixture until well blended. Add the fresh and crystallized ginger. Chill the dough until stiff enough to handle easily.

Shape the dough into 1-inch balls and roll in the granulated sugar. Bake in a 350°F oven for about 10 minutes. Makes 4 dozen.