Ginger is an extremely versatile plant that is popular for a variety of reasons throughout the world. The root (or rhizome) of some varieties of ginger is used as a spice or flavoring in all sorts of culinary applications and is sold throughout the world in the fresh, ground, powdered, paste, and other forms, while other gingers are cultivated by gardeners as an ornamental plant for their uniquely shaped and quite beautiful brightly-colored flowers. Ginger has also been used in traditional medicines for thousands of years, and is currently popular in herbal teas and health supplements; one type of ginger is even used in making shampoos.
The plants that we commonly refer to as ginger (which is a word believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘horn’, referring to the root’s shape) are members of the Zingiberaceae family of flowering plants. Most types of ginger require a tropical or subtropical environment to grow as a perennial (their natural growth pattern), although many gardeners around the world – including throughout the United States – grow ginger as an annual plant, primarily for the flowers. The most commonly commercially cultivated types of ginger – which belong to the Zingibar officinale genus and species – are widely used all over the world as a spice and, in some cases, in folk medicine. There are, however, well over a thousand species of ginger.
Ginger probably originated in the island nations of Southeast Asia and is believed to have been brought to the Indian subcontinent around 3,000 BC. From there it made its way to China and the Middle East through the spice trade, then to the rest of the world. It was widely used throughout both the Greek and Roman empires as a spice, while it became quite important in both culinary and medicinal applications in both the ancient Indian and Chinese cultures.
As various cultivars spread throughout Africa and Europe and people began to crossbreed them, ginger also became highly valued for its flowers, becoming a quite sought-after ornamental plant with the upper classes in Europe during the Renaissance. It was introduced to the New World by the Spanish explorers, and to what is today the United States with the early settlers (although it had been grown in Hawaii for thousands of years).
Today, various types of ginger are grown throughout the world and – provided that it is not exposed to temperatures below about 10 C (50 F) – many cultivars prove to be quite adaptable to a variety of conditions; in some parts of the world, it is so prolific that it is even considered to be an invasive ‘pest’.
Ginger can be divided into two basic categories: culinary and ornamental. In most cases, culinary gingers are grown specifically for their edible rhizome, while ornamentals are grown for their flowers – although in some cases other parts of some ornamental cultivars are used as a seasoning in some cultures.
So what are some of the most common and interesting types of ginger around today?
Ginger is one of the most widely used spices – both in cooking and industrial food processing – in the world, and about 3.3 million metric tons of culinary ginger is commercially cultivated every year. India leads the world in ginger cultivation – accounting for just over a third of all global production – followed by China, Nigeria, Nepal, Indonesia, and Thailand. It is commercially cultivated on a smaller scale throughout Southeast Asia, parts of Africa, the South Pacific islands, South America and Mexico. In the United States, which ranks 24th and produces just over 700 tons annually, production is mostly limited to the Hawaiian Islands and Puerto Rico. The vast majority of the fresh ginger sold in North America and Europe is imported from China or India. The rhizome of culinary ginger plants is the most widely consumed part, although the leaves and flowers of some varieties are also edible and used in some cuisines.
While ginger is generally used in the Western world as a sweetener (after the rhizome has been cooked down to release the natural sugars) for cookies, cakes, ginger ale and beer, desserts, and some savory recipes, it is an essential spice in many Asian, Indian and African cuisines where it is valued for its sweetness, the heat it adds to dishes, and its uniquely lingering, spicy flavor.
Also often called Chinese, Indian, or Yellow, Common ginger is the most commonly commercially cultivated ginger in the areas mentioned above, and what you will most often find both fresh and in other forms (powder, paste, etc.) at your local grocery store. Most varieties of Common ginger (there are estimated to be over 200) do not produce particularly attractive flowers and so are not commonly non-commercially grown by any other than dedicated home vegetable gardeners. Botanically, Common gingers belong to the Zingibar officinale classification. Depending on the specific cultivar, the plant will grow to between 3 and 4 feet tall and spread to between 2 and 3 feet wide. Generally, Common ginger cultivars will not survive sustained temperatures below 50F, and vegetable gardeners in colder areas will often start the plant indoors, transplant it to the garden in late spring, and have useable rhizomes by the late fall.
The rhizome – or ginger root – itself will usually grow to anywhere from 2 to 6 inches long when fully mature, again depending on the specific cultivar, and will often be shaped like deformed hands with smaller ‘fingers’ branching out from the central mass. The skin will usually be a shade of tan, and its thickness will be determined by at what point in its growth the rhizome is harvested (generally, the older the root, the thicker the skin) and will normally need to be peeled off. The flesh will usually be a shade of yellow or light brown – although it can also be white or even blue-tinged – and quite moist, fibrous, and firm. Most Common gingers have a slightly sweet, spicy, and quite pungent flavor. The leaves are usually too tough for use in salads but are sometimes dried and used as a spice.
Common ginger is widely used in Asian and Indian cuisines – fresh, cooked, or in powder, paste, or pickled form – in stir fry and curry dishes, soups, and stews, and as a general seasoning particularly with fish and poultry. In Europe and North America, it is often used in spicier mixed and savory dishes, baking, and candy-making. In industrial food processing, it is widely used as the main flavoring in ginger ale, ginger beer, cookies and cakes, confections, and some types of liqueurs. It is also widely used in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine to treat indigestion, nausea, and muscle pain.
Some of the most widely grown commercial cultivars of Common ginger include Gandzhou, Guangzhow, and Shandong Laiwu (in China), and Nadia (in India). Popular specialty cultivars include Chinese Blue, Nigerian White, and Hawaiian Blue.
Also called young, spring, and Japanese ginger (incorrectly, as the rhizomes of true Japanese ginger are not edible), Baby ginger most often refers to the rhizomes of certain Yellow ginger cultivars that are harvested well before they reach full maturity. While most Yellow gingers rhizomes will take at least 10 months to mature, baby ginger is usually harvested at between 5 and 6 months and will, in most cases be approximately half the size (or just a little larger) of their fully mature cousins. Baby ginger has a much thinner, easier to remove light brown or off-white skin and very light yellow or white flesh that is juicier and much less fibrous than mature rhizomes. The flavor is also much milder, sweeter and less pungent and can often have a mildly peppery, floral taste.
Baby ginger is most often used in raw applications, as its flavors do not stand up to cooking particularly well, although it is sometimes added near the end to stir-fries and stews. It is often used in salads and with sorbets, mixed in certain cocktails, and used to make syrups. It is used in many Asian cuisines and is particularly popular in Japan (accounting for the incorrect nickname) where it is often pickled or candied. It can be quite difficult to find fresh Baby ginger outside of the nations where ginger is commercially cultivated as it has a relatively short shelf life (usually not more than a week) and does not ship well. It can be found in pickled form throughout the world.
Also commonly called Thai ginger, fingerroot, Chinese keys, Tropical ginger, and Resurrection Lily, Galangal is something of a catch-all name for several species in the Zingiberaceae/ginger family; the most common commercially available are Alpinia galanga and Boesenbergia Rotunda. Native to Asia and still widely grown there, the plants will grow to anywhere from 5 to 7 feet tall and, depending on the cultivar, produce white or red flowers of varying sizes; some varieties in the Alpinia group are cultivated in the West as ornamentals (see below).
The edible rhizomes vary widely in both size and shape, with some looking like a smaller version of Common gingers and others having an elongated, almost carrot-like shape. The skin (which is normally peeled off) is usually brown or tan and the flesh – depending on the variety – can be yellow, white, black or red. Most Galangals have a sweeter and less pungent flavor than Common gingers, and they are widely used in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines – particularly in Indonesia and Thailand. In the Western world, it is most commonly found picked or frozen. It can be used as a milder ginger alternative to Common ginger is most recipes. It is also widely used in a number of Asian folk medicines to treat fever, muscle pain, flatulence, gout, and stomach ache; in Thailand, it is sometimes used as an aphrodisiac.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is among the oldest of the edible gingers cultivated by man, with a history dating back over 5,000 years in Indonesia and Southern India. Also sometimes called Indian saffron, the plant will normally grow to about 3 feet tall and is even less resistant to cold than other types of ginger, normally needing constant temperatures of over 60F to survive. The knobby edible rhizome will usually grow to between 3 and 4 inches in length and have brownish-orange skin and a bright carrot-orange flesh that will turn a distinctive shade of yellow when it is boiled and dried. Turmeric has a mild, carrot-like ginger flavor, is used fresh in a variety of curries and stews, and is occasionally fried and served as a side dish. In the Western world, Turmeric is usually sold in powdered form as a spice. It is widely used as a food coloring – most notably in yellow mustard; it is also used to color some margarine, salad dressings, yogurts, and broths. It is sometimes taken as a supplement for its antioxidant qualities and is used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines as an anti-inflammatory.
With a few exceptions (such as members of the Alpinia genus discussed above) ornamental gingers are grown for their flowers and are usually not eaten. As is the case with the culinary varieties, ornamental gingers are usually not cold-hardy at all; however, many varieties are quite adaptable to growing as potted plants indoors, in greenhouses, or being started inside during the colder months and transferred to outdoor gardens during the late spring. There are hundreds of different varieties of ornamental gingers, and they are cultivated (and widely used in floral arrangements) throughout the world. Various types of ornamental gingers have been used in making Hawaiian Leis for centuries.
One of the largest groups in the ornamental category, there are well over 100 varieties in the Globba genus of flowering gingers commonly cultivated today. Most Globba ginger varieties will grow to around 2 feet tall – making them very popular as houseplants – and are characterized by their small brightly colored flowers that seem to hang from the stem or bract and sway in the breeze. The flowers themselves will usually be mauve/purple, yellow or white, although there are some rarer red and pinkish varieties. Globba varieties are often used in exotic flower arrangements and will last about two weeks after being cut. Popular varieties include Dancing Lady, Dancing Girl, Snowball, White Swan, Lavender Dragon, Jungle Jewel, and Blushing Maiden.
More commonly referred to as spiral ginger, some members of the Costus genus of flowering gingers can reach up to 7 feet tall, although the most commonly cultivated varieties will usually top out at around 5 feet. A fairly hardy variety, they are native to Southeast Asia and are still widely grown there as well as in parts of Brazil, Costa Rica, and Southern Mexico. Costus gingers are characterized by flowers that seem to grow in a spiral pattern (hence the nickname) due to the spiraling, bamboo-like stalk of the plant. The flowers will normally range from 5 to 10 inches in length and be purple, pink, white, orange or red in color. In some traditional medicines, Costus gingers are used in the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, and rashes. Popular types include Crepe, Indian Head, Red Tower, and Red Cigar.
More commonly known as Hidden Ginger, there are about 130 members of the Curcuma genus. The most popular members of this group will grow to between 2 and 4 feet tall and spread up to 3 feet. They can tolerate cold a bit better than many other gingers and are very popular (particularly in the Southern United States) as patio and deck plants. The flowers of many Curcuma varieties seem to be ‘hidden in the leaves of the plant, due to the foliage of the plant often being taller than the stalk. The flowers will range from bright red, yellow, and orange to pink or white depending on the variety, and will usually last in arrangements for 7 to 10 days after being cut. Popular varieties include Hidden Cone, Jewel of Thailand (or Thailand Jewel), Queen Lily, Hidden Lily, and Siam Tulip.
The same genus that produces the edible rhizome galangal also produces some of the most widely grown and stunning varieties of ornamental gingers. Flowering members of the Alpinia genus are known for their vigorous growth (so vigorous, in fact, that in some areas is it considered to be an ‘invasive pest’) and large, fragrant flowers. Most popular ornamental types will grow to between 5 and 8 feet tall with some varieties getting up to over 15 feet. The large flowers spread out from a central cone and come in a vast array of colors include red, orange, white, pink, purple and blue; they are widely used in floral arrangements, and will often last up to two weeks after cutting. Sometimes grown indoors in pots, gardeners in warmer climates will often spend more time cutting the plants back than ensuring that they grow properly. Popular varieties include Tahitian Red, Polynesian Princess, Purest White, Jungle King, Blue Berry, and Hanging Pink.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.