You are most likely familiar with traditional ginger. However the Zingiberaceae offers many edible treasures, some that can be found in Asian markets, others almost totally unknown in the west. Because they are tropical plants with special needs, you probably won’t grow them all (though I know some real zealots for the Zingiberaceae who have greenhouses full of the family).
In the east, traditional medicine says that ginger stimulates digestion and appetite. Science now shows this to be true: gingerols, unique compounds found in the tissues of plants from this family, increase the motility of the gastrointestinal tract and have analgesic, sedative, antipyretic and antibacterial properties.
All gingers have a pungent flavor, but the flavors vary quite a bit. Even similar species of the same genus are distinct. The tastes of all ginger species are extraordinary and exotic.
These are tropical plants that go dormant in winter. You have a few options in growing them: you can wait for them to go dormant and store their tubers safely inside in a bucket of sand, or you can keep them in a container to be moved inside. Whatever way you choose, protect them from the cold. I suggest the latter because sometimes the cold comes sooner than the plant’s dormancy. Plants can be grown in greenhouses very successfully, and this is perhaps the best way to enjoy the ginger family.
Feed very regularly with kelp meal or fish emulsion and spray with compost tea in the growing season. Soil drainage should be very good but don’t let plants dry out too much, especially if in pots. Provide the largest containers that is convenient for you. Half whiskey barrels are great as long as you drill some holes in the bottom for drainage (whiskey barrels are made to hold liquid when the wood is wet).
Plants like a good amount of filtered sun, but not a lot of direct summer sun. And they hate the wind. Think of the tropics, and provide an out of the way, protected locale.
Most plants will probably be grown for novelty or fun. Some species are more difficult to grow than others. There are even more edible gingers than I have listed here. The purpose of this article is to help people become more familiar with the ginger family. Gingers provide some of the most exotic flavors in the world (cardamom, turmeric, etc) and are suspected to be highly effective against cancer cells of many types. If you become a Zingiberaceae enthusiast, you may find some of these species difficult to find. A hint: find nurseries specializing in tropical plants (some even specialize in gingers), and call them up. Ask if they have the plant in question. Nurseries like this don’t list everything they have. Also, they might just suggest where you could find what you are looking for.
One more note–gingers have amazingly beautiful flowers, if you can get them to bloom in our arid climate. There are also many ornamental tropical gingers that are grown as houseplants and tropical greenhouse plants. Many of the varieties you will locate will be selected for a prettier flower, and not necessarily for edible traits. Also, know that many tropical plant nurseries use some seriously toxic chemicals. You might wait some time before you think about consuming any part of such a plant. If you cannot locate the species as a grown container specimen, some places offer seeds or rhizomes. Seeds are difficult to find fresh and not always easy to germinate. I suggest the rhizome if you have a choice.
To grow a ginger is to enter into the world of tropical plant growing. A warning: this is very addictive. I have many friends who have spent their whole lives, a large percentage of their income, and not to mention much mental and physical energy growing tropical plants. It is a nerd-wormhole that has no bottom.
This is, of course, the most famous of the gingers (at least in the U.S.) and the easiest to find. You can start plants from rhizomes (the part of ginger most people are familiar with) found in the grocery store–organic is best. Cut up ginger root so that there is at least one “eye” per division. You can also plant the whole darn thing, especially if it is a smaller rhizome. Bury about 4-6 inches deep in a pot with potting soil. This is best done in spring when it warms up. Some rhizomes will not grow and may rot (especially if the weather is too cool). Some will take a long time to sprout. Dig up once in a while to check on progress and discard rotten rhizomes.
Whole turmeric rhizomes are now found in places like Whole Foods, co-ops and Asian markets. They look like tiny, orange ginger roots. You can plant as described above. Turmeric rhizomes and flesh are much more brilliant orange in color. This spice is so much better used fresh than dried. I often toss them into pickles and stir-fries. The color is outstanding. I have had lots of success growing turmeric from the store.
Though with most gingers it is the rhizome that is consumed, with this species the unripened fruit or the seeds inside are consumed. I have grown this species before but have not collected the fruits. One grows such a plant for novelty, though I suppose it is possible and rewarding to successfully yield fruits. You can get young plants from Mountain Valley Growers.
This is an important ingredient in rustic Indian dishes and in a few places in China. There are several species. Considered less refined than green cardamom by some, this is really just a different spice. One species is even prepared smoked. Difficult to find.
Surprisingly this has been showing up in Asian markets here and there. It can be grown as you would regular ginger, with greater success. The fleshy rhizomes don’t need to be peeled though you will need to cut off a few gnarled parts. For those who find regular ginger too intense, this is a nice substitute with a more floral and citrus-like flavor. Difficult to cut, use a serrated knife or grate. This is a true culinary delight now found locally.
The galagal rhizomes were widely used in ancient and medieval Europe, reputed to smell of roses and taste of “spice”. Its use in Europe has dramatically declined and it is now primarily used in Eastern Europe. In Russia it is used for flavoring vinegar and the liqueur Nastoika. It is still used as a spice and medicine in Lithuania and Estonia. The rhizomes are ground to powder for use in curries, drinks, and jellies throughout Asia. In India the essence is used in perfumes, and Tartars prepare a kind of tea that contains it. Available as plants at Horizon Herbs (which is a very cool online source, BTW).
In chinese cuisine this plant’s long leaf blades are used for wrapping zongzi. In Okinawa, Japan, shell ginger leaves are sold as herbal tea and are also used to flavour noodles and wrap mochi rice cakes. There are many ornamental varieties of this species available. Among many other tropical plant sources you can find shell ginger at Stokes Tropicals.
Chinese Keys (Boesenbergia pandurata)
Originally from Indonesia, Chinese keys are used throughout Southeast Asia and China. Rhizomes are consumed raw in salads, cooked in soups, pickled and in medicinal teas. I have grown this species with no problem though it can be difficult to locate at times. Rhizomes are available at Tropilab Inc.
The edible root of zedoary has a white interior and a fragrance reminiscent of mango; however, its flavor is more similar to ginger, except with a very bitter aftertaste. In Indonesia, it is ground to a powder and added to curry pastes, whereas in India, it tends to be used fresh or in pickling. In Thai cuisine it is used raw and cut in thin strips in certain salads. It can also be served cut into thin slices together with other herbs and vegetables with types Thai chilli pastes. Zedoary is available at Hawaiian Botanicals.
Leaves and tubers are eaten raw, cooked and picked throughout Southeast Asia. A hangover remedy in Thailand utilizes crushed tubers and whiskey (I suspect the whiskey addition is a bit of the “hair of the dog”). Similar to Chinese Keys but with more of a hint of licorice flavor. Not commonly used as much as in the past, though highly prized as a medicinal plant. Stokes Tropicals has Blackhorm.
This is a luxurious vegetable. Instead of the leaves or rhizomes, the flower buds are eaten. Choose a tight flower bud and eat raw, cooked, steamed, or roasted. In sushi restaurants in Japan you may find them in sashimi dishes. Kantan has an especially unique and tangy flavor and it’s an exceptionally gorgeous delicacy. Aloha Tropicals has Kantan.
This plant is more frost tolerant than the other gingers and requires shade. Flower buds are sometimes finely shredded and used in Japanese cuisine as a garnish for miso soup, sunomono and dishes such as roasted eggplant. In Korean cuisine, flower buds are skewered alternately with pieces of meat and then are pan-fried. Young shoots are also eaten cooked or raw. Plant Delights has myōga.
Kencur has a peppery camphorous taste. It is one of the many plants also called galangal. The plant is used as a herb in cooking in Indonesia and especially in Javanese and Balinese cuisines. Beras kencur, which combines dried K. galanga powder with rice flour, is a particularly popular Jamu herbal drink used to treat rheumatism and abdominal pain. Its leaves are also used in a Malay rice dish. This species is often confused with Kaempferia rotunda which is related and also edible (mentioned above). Stokes Tropicals has Kencur.
Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium coronarium and other species of Hedychium)
It is said that all species of Hedychium are edible, but some may be extremely powerful. Be careful when you experiment. H. coronarium is preferred in an ethnic dish of Manipur. The rhizome of Butterfly Ginger is used for headache, lancinating pain, contusion and is considered anti-inflammatory. It is also used as a febrifuge, tonic, excitant, and anti-rheumatic.
Seeds have been used like black pepper for a very long time. Though very rare and unknown now, melegueta was used throughout Europe as early as medieval times. Hardly known these days, it is used to flavor beer (Samual Adams Summer Ale is flavored with them). Some experimental and talented chefs have employed Meleguenta and one can find the ingredient in specialty shops and online. A similar species A. corrorima is used as a spice, especially in coffee in Ethiopia. Tropilab Inc. has Melegueta.
Hard to find and disappearing in the wild. If you find this on a list somewhere, grab it. The highly aromatic roots have a variety of medicinal and traditional uses and the native South African people have cultivated this plant for many years. It is used by the Zulu people as a protection against lightning and snakes. The rhizomes and roots are chewed fresh to treat asthma, hysteria, colds, coughs & flu. Easy to grow.
Officially no longer a ginger, but in a related family called Costaceae, the leaves are dried and powdered and eaten. The roots and flowers are also reported edible and lightly used in Asia. I saw some of these for sale at Amazon. They are not hard to find.