Herb Profile: Ginger Plant | Zingiber Officinale

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Photo By iStockphoto/Elanathewise
It’s no wonder fresh ginger tastes pungent. This peppery rhizome contains a family of volatile oils called gingerols and shogaols that are structurally related to capsaicin, the compound responsible for the hot bite of chiles.

Genus: Zingiber officinale
• Sometimes called zingiber
• Hardy to Zone 7

The ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) is our favorite rhizome to cook with. What is a rhizome? We think of it as a root, but the clusters or “hands” of ginger that we buy are really rhizomorphous. They are thickened, modified underground stems, which produce roots below and shoots above ground. Native to Southeast Asia, this ancient plant has been cultivated intensively there for cooking and medicine, noted as far back as the Later Han Dynasty (25 A.D. to 220 A.D.).

Try This Recipe: Ginger Syrup 

How to Use Ginger

Culinarily, the pungency of ginger is used around the globe, fresh, dried and ground. Green ginger (raw) is broken into “fingers” and sliced into coins or grated and used in soups, marinades, stir-fries, curries, chutneys, and with meat and fish dishes. We like it especially with sweet potatoes, pumpkin and winter squash, and just a touch in fruit salads. It is often sliced or cubed and candied or preserved in syrup. Pickled ginger is very popular today and is served alongside sushi.

Once dried, the volatile oils in ginger (gingerols and shogaols) become more pungent, thus making them stronger in flavor. The spicy-hot ground ginger is what we buy to make gingerbread, gingersnaps, muffins and quick breads, puddings, sauces, etc.; medicinally, it is used in Ayurvedic and Chinese prescriptions in different applications than fresh ginger. Worldwide, powdered ginger is used to flavor ginger ale, condiments and confections. The oil is distilled from whole dried, and then ground, ginger and is sometimes used as a commercial flavoring, but it is more often employed in perfumery.

Health Benefits of Ginger Root

An abundance of health benefits come from this peppery rhizome; since it is a warming herb, it increases perspiration. It also stimulates digestion, as well as respiration, circulation and the nervous system. We know many experienced gardeners who use ginger tea and candied ginger as an anti-inflammatory to ease the ache of over-used joints. Probably, ginger is best known for its ability to relieve motion sickness, indigestion, nausea and morning sickness. It also helps with flatulence. As an herbal expectorant, it eases the symptoms of colds, cough and flu. It is not recommended for individuals with digestive ulcers, high fevers or inflamed skin conditions.

Dried ginger should be a staple in your pantry and you should always have a rhizome in your refrigerator. Look for firm, plump rhizomes that are free of wrinkles, soft spots and mold. Store them in a paper bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator; do not seal them tightly in plastic as that will encourage mold.

If we are pickling ginger, we peel it first. It is not necessary to peel ginger for most recipes, especially if grating or mincing it. When using a paring knife to peel ginger, you lose a lot of it, so we use a grapefruit spoon, which easily scrapes off the outer skin.

Growing Ginger

To grow your own ginger, obtain fresh rhizomes as you would for cooking. Choose a garden bed that is located in an area protected from high winds and is well-drained but that will be kept moist. The soil should be slightly acidic and contain copious quantities of organic matter. Alternatively, a peat and wood bark-based soil-less potting medium with a little sand mixed in will support container-grown plants. Ginger is a tropical plant and loves humidity and filtered sun. Plant the rhizomes, growth buds facing up, with a slight covering of soil, 1 to 2 inches, in the early spring after all danger of frost has passed. In Zone 6 and 7, sprouts of new leaves will appear in mid-May. The leaves will stand through the summer and then begin to yellow as light hours shorten and temperatures get cooler in the fall. When the leaves have died, it is time to harvest the rhizomes. In subtropical and tropical climates, simply replant a few of the rhizomes for next season’s harvest. In areas that receive temperatures below freezing, replant a few rhizomes in pots or trays and set in an area that does not freeze. Water occasionally, but do not keep the growing medium soggy. The next spring, discard any rotted rhizomes and begin the process once more. 

Susan Belsinger tends her herbs in Maryland and Tina Marie Wilcox heads the Ozark Folk Center in Arkansas. They have been collaborating since 1996. 

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