Ginger is that pungent, spicy root that belongs in curries and goes so well with garlic in stir fries. It gives a zing to vegetable juices, it’s a must in turmeric latte, highly refreshing as ginger beer, and who can forget green ginger wine? As far as sweet treats are concerned, ginger can flavour cakes and biscuits, or be eaten as crystallised ginger, but I personally have a weakness for dark chocolate coated ginger – yum.
The name Ginger comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘horn body’ which is a good description of its root. The botanical name for ginger is Zingiber officinale and it comes from the Zingiberaceae family (the ginger family!). Turmeric, cardamom and galangal are part of this same botanical family. It likes tropical heat and doesn’t survive frost, but it can be grown indoors in pots – here’s a short (less than 2 minutes) YouTube video on how to do it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4ZlvmSF7Ng
There seems to be some debate about ginger’s origins – was it southern China or India? In China, Confuscious was using ginger as a digestive tonic, way back in 500BC, and in both the Chinese and Ayurvedic healing systems, ginger was viewed as a healing gift from God. Much later, Chinese sailors in the fifth century, ate ginger to prevent scurvy on their voyages – it turns out that ginger is a good source of vitamin C! Eventually ginger was being eaten and used medicinally all over southern Asia.
Ginger travelled to the Mediterranean via first century Roman traders, and by the eleventh century it was well known in England. Spices were highly sought after in Europe at that time, being rich in both aroma and taste, they were exotic and alluring and a rare commodity. In the Middle ages, one pound of ginger was equivalent to the price of a sheep!
In the Koran, ginger is described as a beverage of the holiest heavenly spirits.
Ginger was valued as an aphrodisiac in many countries. In the thirteenth century, Italy’s University of Salerno medical school prescribed ginger in old age so that “you will love and be loved as in your youth”. The women of Senegal in West Africa were known to wear belts of ginger root to sexually arouse their husbands (and this is practiced in some areas of the country to this day).
The Greek physician, Dioscorides, in 77AD recorded that ginger “warms and softens the stomach”. Ginger was also used as part of soldiers’ diets in the American War of Independence.
Then there are historical uses of ginger for pain – spinal and joint pain, toothache, painful menstruation, and to ease symptoms of colds and flu and even relieve hangovers!
Ginger Herbal Properties
The ginger root is accurately called a rhizome. Rhizomes have nodes which send out new roots and shoots, so given the right climate it could become invasive. If you break off a piece of the rhizome it will grow a new plant.
As a herb, ginger has warming qualities, and dried ginger is hotter than fresh ginger because it contains shogaols which are compounds produced during the heating and drying process. As with many spices, when you consume them in food or in a tea, you can feel warmth radiating from your core, and this will disperse out into the limbs.
That’s why ginger is a food for cold weather – I love ginger and other spices when the weather is cold.
Ginger is also drying because it creates heat, and then stimulates the loss of fluids through causing sweating and a clearing of mucous from the body.
Ginger is stimulating and warming
to digestion. Use it to ease flatulence, bloating and constipation. It’s also great to relieve morning sickness, motion sickness and any nausea. You can drink it in tea, cook it in stir fries and curry or eat it as crystallised ginger.
When you feel a cold coming on, start drinking ginger tea to warm up, relieve chills and fight infection. It will ease congested sinuses and get stuck mucous flowing. Eat ginger infused honey to relieve a sore throat. Use ginger essential oil in a chest rub to decongest.
Ginger will produce a cooling effect on the body when there is fever, through it’s ability to promote sweating. You need to use the root in a tea or as a liquid herbal extract to achieve this effect.
Pain & Circulation
Ginger is an effective anti-inflammatory for arthritis (both osteo and rheumatoid), and relieves the pain of sore muscles. Use ginger essential oil in an oil, cream or balm base and apply to the skin over the painful area.
Ginger works well for people who show signs of cold – they have a pale
face and tongue, they feel the cold, have cold hands and feet, have slow digestion and bloating, and a tendency to lethargy and being slow. I’m one of those cold fish people. I need ginger and other hot spices to warm me up, but if you have a tendency to feel hot and have a ruddy complexion you should probably stay away from ginger.
Stagnant blood is a term used in Chinese medicine which refers to blood that is not properly circulating in the body. Bruises, heart attack, blood clots, varicose and spider veins, and fibroids are all examples of stagnant blood. This condition contributes to pain that is fixed, cramping or stabbing such as painful menstruation and headaches. Ginger is a useful medicine for improving circulation and relieving these ailments.
There are three kinds of oil extracts which are produced from ginger:
1. Ginger essential oil is produced by steam distillation of the rhizomes. It contains the small, volatile components of the ginger root which evaporate out of the plant during the distillation process.
2. An oleoresin is produced by solvent extraction of the dried and unpeeled rhizomes. The solvent is evaporated off after extraction leaving a dark brown, viscous liquid which contains the complete flavour profile of the ginger root. This is used commercially in the food and flavouring industry. Oleoresins tend to be more stable when heated, easy to store and transport, and more economical than the essential oil.
3. Carbon dioxide extracts of ginger are also produced. I personally prefer these to the ginger essential oil because carbon dioxide provides a very clean method of extraction (unlike the oleoresin which can contain minute amounts of solvent residue), and it extracts both the volatile and non-volatile components of ginger. This means that you have an extract which smells just like fresh ginger. The essential oil lacks some of the more pungent components of ginger which remain in the CO2 extracted ginger. It lacks the pizazz!
Both the essential oil and the carbon dioxide extract can be applied to the skin, however the CO2 extract should only be used at a maximum of 1% dilution in an oil, balm or cream base. If you are diffusing ginger, stick to the essential oil rather than the CO2 extract.