GINGER (Zingiber officinalis – Zingiberaceae)

Ginger, one of the most familiar of spices, is a tropical herbaceous perennial which grows to a height of about 60 – 90cm (2 – 3 ft). The ginger plant likes water, humidity and heat, and its long spiky leaves are similar in appearance to reeds. The flower is yellow with a purple lip, rather orchid-like, but it is the underground rhizomes or tubers which provide the spice. These are known as ‘hands’ as they often consist of several finger-like protuberances.

The ginger plant is thought to have originated in India, and was one of the first spices to reach Europe from Asia. The Spanish conquistadors introduced it to the West Indies, where it quickly naturalized, and Jamaica in particular became one of the major world producers of the spice. Ginger is now grown in many countries with suitable climates, among them India (50 per cent of the world production), Malaysia, Africa, Japan (where 40 species have been recorded), China, Queensland and Florida.

Ginger has been used for centuries in India, China and Japan for its medicinal properties and features largely in those traditional cuisines. The Ancient Egyptians grew ginger and used it in their cooking to keep epidemics at bay. The Greeks and Romans also used it both medicinally and in cooking. Dioscorides recommended it as a stomachic, to help a sluggish system, and as a stimulant of the digestion, giving it similar virtues to those of pepper. The Romans, interestingly, used ginger in ophthalmics: for advanced cataracts, a ginger preparation was made up and applied on the eyes several times a day. St Hildegarde, a twelfth¬ century healer, recommended it as a stimulant and tonic, and reiterated its effectiveness for eye diseases.

She also said it had aphrodisiac properties, especially for stimulating the vigour of older men married to young women! Ginger was used in the Middle Ages to counter the Black Death; it provoked sweating (much as does the spice when used in a good curry).

To the natives of the Pacific island of Dohu, ginger is sacred, and they use it in abundance in cooking, magic ritual and medicine. The witchdoctor chews the roots, and spits it on to his patients’ wounds and burns. The islanders believe it has remarkable healing effects. A story is also told on the island about the actions of fishermen when there’s a storm at sea: they too chew the ginger roots, but spit them out into the winds to make them abate. It works apparently!


Description: Ginger oil is distilled from the rhizomes. It is more or less fluid, and yellow, sometimes pale, sometimes dark. It is very aromatic, and camphory with a lemon note, and very peppery, rather like pimentoes.

The principal constituents: Sesquiterpenes (camphene, d-phellandrene, zingiberene), sesquiterpenic alcohols (isoborneol-linalool), and terpenes, with citrol and resins.
Dangers: The essential oil should never be applied or rubbed neat on the skin, or added neat to a bath, as the skin could react badly, with a nasty rash, followed by blisters. It must always be diluted in a pure cold-pressed vegetable oil base.


In illness
Ginger is well known as a warming stimulant and as an aid for digestion and digestive problems. It is also good for colds, coughs and sore throats. A little ginger oil mixed with a vegetable oil makes an effective warming rub for swellings caused by water retention or for rheumatism.

(See also dyspepsia.)

Ginger aphrodisiac
It is perhaps most revered for its reputed aphrodisiac properties (known to the Romans who would ginger up their wine for this purpose!).

  • 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil
  • 3 drops ginger oil
  • 3 drops wheat germ oil
  • 2 drops savory oil
  • 2 drops clove oil
  • 1 drop rosemary oil

Mix together and massage gently into the spine for a few minutes, concentrating on the lower part. Follow this with a tisane; made with hot water, some grated ginger, a pinch each of dried savory and rosemary, and a stick of cinnamon. Infuse for 5 minutes and add honey if desired.

In cookery
Ginger stimulates the gastric Juices, which in turn facilitates good digestion. Ginger’s antiseptic action was once used to protect against meat bacteria, but now its flavour is best known as a vital ingredient of many curries and Chinese stir-fry dishes. In the western world it is used primarily in sweet preparations – gingerbreads, cakes and biscuits feature in the cuisines of many European countries – but it is also used in preserves, confectionery, ginger beer and ginger ale.

Fresh ginger is now freely available (the rhizomes can stay viable for quite some time), as is dried ginger (which should be bruised before use to release the fragrance). Ginger preserved in syrup is prepared largely in China, and it can also be crystallized in sugar, pickled, and stored in a strong spirit or sherry. Ginger is conveniently bought ground, but the essential oil which gives it flavour is easily lost.

Use ginger in a number of dishes in the winter to give warmth and help those suffering from coughs and colds: add a little to milk puddings, and a slice of fresh to spiced hot drinks, ranging from hot chocolate to a wassail bowl at Christmas.

Other uses
Ginger can be used for its aroma in spicy pot-pourris, but its most unusual use must be in an unscrupulous French veterinary practice. To impress clients or judges, horse dealers rub grated ginger under the horse’s tail. As the heat becomes unbearable, so the horse raises its tail, thus giving the illusion of vigorous health and fitness!

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