By Maryann Readal
Ginger, Zingiber officinale, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for January. The English botanist, William Roscoe (1753-1831), gave ginger its name, which was derived from the Sanskrit word sryngaveram, which means “horn root.” However, ginger is not a root; it is a rhizome, which is an underground stem from which the roots grow. Ginger is an excellent spice to feature in January, because when infused into warm water, its spiciness warms the body on a cold winter day. Its medicinal qualities also help to relieve a sore throat or other cold symptoms that are more common in the winter.
Ginger is a very old spice. The Indians and the Chinese used ginger as a medicine over 5000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments (Bode, 2011). It was also used to flavor foods long before history was even recorded. The Greeks and the Romans introduced ginger to Europe and the Mediterranean area by way of the Arab traders. It became an important spice in Europe until the fall of the Roman Empire. When the Arabs re-established trade routes after the fall, ginger found its way back into European apothecaries and kitchens. It is said that one pound of ginger cost the same as one sheep in the 13th and 14th centuries (Bode, 2011). (It’s hard to imagine something that is so common today was so expensive many years ago.) The Arab traders were also good marketers. They brought with them claims that ginger was a reliable aphrodisiac. As late as the 19th century, it was claimed that rubbing your hands in ground ginger would assure success in the bed chamber (Laws, 2018). Perhaps it was their successful marketing that created the demand for the rhizome, driving up its price.
Today, growing culinary ginger is not limited to the hot, humid areas of Southeast Asia and India as it was long ago. Anyone living in southern growing areas (USDA Hardiness Zones 8 – 12) can grow it as a perennial. In colder areas, it can be grown in pots and brought indoors for the winter or grown in the ground, but dug up before frost and potted up for overwintering indoors in a cool location. It prefers a rich, moist soil, good drainage, and shade in the south, but full sun in the north. If starting plants from store-bought ginger rhizomes, the rhizome should be first soaked in water to remove any growth retardant that may have been used. Each rhizome can be cut into sections with at least two eyes and planted in soil. Harvest the rhizomes when the leaves begin to fade.
There are many beautiful ornamental gingers that are in the Zingiberaceae family that are easy to grow in warm climates. There are shell, butterfly, spiral, hidden, and peacock gingers, each with a unique bloom and bright color. All provide tropical accents in the garden.
Savory Asian and Indian cuisines would be unthinkable without ginger, but in Europe, it is added to puddings, cakes, and drinks. Ginger is used in teas in many countries as well. In some parts of the Middle East, it is added to coffee. On the Ivory Coast, ginger is ground and added to juiced fruit. And how much more tasty Japanese sushi is with those slices of pink, pickled ginger! Here in the U.S., we have ginger ale and ginger beer, gingersnaps, and gingerbread. In Hawaii, ginger flowers are one of the flowers used in making leis. Googling ginger and cooking will find many, many interesting recipes using ginger in some form: fresh, ground, crystallized, pickled, preserved, or dried.
Ginger is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some medicinal applications of ginger that are supported by contemporary research are for the treatment of motion sickness, nausea, osteoarthritis, and muscle pain reduction (Engels, 2018). According to Bohm, “ginger also appears to reduce cholesterol and improve lipid metabolism, thereby helping to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.” It also shows promise as an anti-cancer agent against colon cancer.
Unfortunately for ginger, there is a dark side to its history. Throughout the 19th Century, a patent medicine, Ginger Juice (also Jamaica ginger), or “Jake” as it was popularly called, was widely sold on street corners and in pharmacies in the U.S. It contained alcohol and a ginger extract and was used as a treatment for headaches, upper respiratory infections, menstrual disorders, and intestinal gas. Even though it had a pungent ginger flavor, it became a sought-after alcoholic drink in U.S. counties where alcohol was prohibited. When Prohibition came along in 1920, medicines with a high alcohol content, such as Ginger Juice, became especially popular. The U.S. government put in place measures to control inappropriate use of these patent medicines; alcohol-based medicines were only available with a prescription. The Prohibition Bureau (naively) considered Ginger Juice to be non-potable and too pungent and possibly did not think people would misuse it. However, Ginger Juice continued to be a popular and inexpensive “drink.”
To circumvent the government’s restrictions/regulations placed on Ginger Juice, one manufacturer began adulterating the medicine by adding the compound tri-orthocresyl phosphate to its product. This created the illusion of pure Ginger Juice to fool the government officials, but ultimately resulted in a very toxic drink for the consumers. Soon, Ginger Juice users began reporting that they lost control of their hands and feet. They developed a peculiar walk, where their toes would touch the ground before their heels. It was called the Jake Walk or Jake Leg. Between 30,000 – 50,000 (some even estimate up to 100,000) people (Fortin, 2020) were affected before the government could remove the contaminated product from the market. Some recovered, but many did not. This unfortunate event has been the subject of many blues songs and some books and movies. This incident contributed to the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which prohibited the marketing of new drugs that were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
This winter, warm up with ginger. For more information and recipes for ginger, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) Ginger inflorescence (Maryann Readal); 2) Arab merchants trading ginger (public domain); 3) Growing ginger (Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder); 4) Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’ (variegated shell ginger) and Curcuma petiolata (hidden ginger) (Maryann Readal); 5) Japanese sushi with pickled ginger (Creative Commons, wuestenigel); 6) 19th-century Jamaican juice (Wikimedia Commons, public domain); 7) Washington Post article about Jamaican Juice lawsuit (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).
Bhatt, Neeru, et al. 2013. Ginger : a functional herb. Accessed 12/1/22. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257416254_Ginger_A_functional_herb
Bode, Ann. 2011. The amazing and mighty ginger. Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press/Taylor Francis. Accessed 12/11/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92775/
Engels, Gayle. 2018. The history and mystery of the Zingiberaceae family. Round Top, TX, Herbal Forum.
Fortin, Neal. 2020. Jamaica Juice paralysis. Accessed 12/9/22. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/jamaican-ginger-paralysis
Ginger, Zingiber officinale. 2018. Accessed 12/1/22. https://mastergardener.extension.wisc.edu/files/2018/02/Zingiber_officinale.pdf
Ginger. 2022. Accessed 12/25/22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger
Laws, Bill. 2018. Fifty plants that changed the course of history. Ohio: David & Charles Books.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.