Herbs for Health: Medicinal Ginger

| October/November 1997

  • Medicinal ginger growing on a mountainside in Peru.
  • A popular nineteenth-century Indian remedy to allay nausea mixed fresh gingerroot, pictured here, with a little honey topped off with a pinch of burnt peacock feathers.

As so many other mothers have done over the years, my mom always gave us kids ginger ale to soothe away the grumblings of an upset stomach. The use of this time-honored home remedy actually has been validated by scientific testing; in fact, few other foods or spices have been documented as thoroughly for their medicinal value as has ginger, the fresh or dried root (rhizome) of Zingiber officinale that is the predominant flavoring of ginger ale.

Ginger, the plant

The ginger family (Zingi­beraceae) contains 1,300 species in fifty-three genera that are native to the Tropics and Subtropics and especially abundant in Indonesia. The genus Zingiber includes about 100 species of aromatic perennial herbs from East Asia and tropical Australia. (The generic name is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “horn-shaped” referring to the protrusions on the rhizomes. In Z. officinale, the scaly rhizomes branch with thick, thumblike protrusions; divisions of the rhizome are known as “hands”.)

Ginger is an erect plant growing 1 to 4½ feet in height. The stem is surrounded by the sheathing bases of the two-ranked leaves. The clublike spikes of yellowish, purple-lipped flowers with showy greenish yellow bracts are rarely seen in cultivated plants.

Ginger plants are now cultivated for export in nearly every tropical and subtropical country in the world with arable land. Major world producers include Fiji, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and China. The spice ginger, in both fresh and dried form, has become increasingly popular in the United States in recent years. Since 1990, the United States has imported an average of more than 4,000 metric tons per year from China, several Caribbean islands, Africa, Central America, Brazil and Australia. The best ginger I’ve ever tasted was organically grown in Hawaii.

Rooted in history

Ginger has been cultivated for so long that no one is sure where it originated. In China, dried ginger is first mentioned in the herbal attributed to the Divine Plowman Emperor Shen Nong, who lived about 2000 b.c. Mention of fresh ginger first occurs in two Chinese medical books published about a.d. 500. Ginger, also grown for millennia in India, reached the West at least 2,000 years ago. References to ginger are found in eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon leech (medical) books. (Physicians were called leeches because they used leeches for bloodletting.) Next to black pepper, ginger was the most popular spice in thirteenth-century England, and a pound of ginger was valued at the price of one sheep.

Traditional uses

In China, fresh ginger and dried ginger have always been considered two different substances. One early herbalist even suggested that they must come from different plants. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the fresh root, called sheng-jiang, is used to expel cold and toxins and relieve nausea, whereas the dried root, gan-jiang, is prescribed in cases of depleted yang, “cold” pain of the stomach and abdomen, diarrhea, cough, and rheumatism.

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