| December/January 2001


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.

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