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Tropical ginger adds spice

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By Jeneen Wiche

Most of us know that the popular spice ginger comes from the root of the plant.  Well, really it is a rhizome, and the hot and pungent flavor has more to it than just a taste sensation. 

Ginger got its name from the Sanskrit word sringavera which means “root shaped like a horn.”  It has been used by the Romans, the Chinese, Europeans and others for thousands of years and has been endowed with an herbal and medicinal reputation. The ginger that we use as a spice comes from zingiber officinale one of many different species of this flowering tropical plant. 

Native to Southeast Asia most of the commercial ginger crop is grown in Australia, California and Jamaica. In the south, many different species of ginger are grown for their broad, decorative foliage and their colorful blooms.  The ornamental gingers have rhizomes that have the traditional ginger scent; however, not all are eaten. In fact, the edible, spice ginger is one of over 1,000 different species that make up the Zingiberaceae family. Some are grown for their rhizomes, but most for their foliage and flower. 

The ornamental gingers are well-suited to containers and since most species are only hardy to zone eight you would treat them like other tropicals and bring them indoors as temperatures drop below freezing.

They can be stored over winter without much fuss but during the growing season they need a part sun location and lots of water and fertilizer.

But, back to the edible spice ginger that we have all come to love in sweet and savory dishes: did you also know that the spice has properties that help aid digestion, ease motion sickness, stimulate circulation and act as an anti-inflammatory.

Some insist that it is an aphrodisiac and a strengthening food for both body and spirit. My mom must have known something when she gave me a bottle of ginger ale and a straw when I was sick.

Above all, however, ginger acts as a natural preservative that made it a valuable commodity before the age of refrigeration.

In fact, during medieval times, ginger was the second most traded spice after pepper. Its pungent taste may have been how gingerbread first became a choice at the local bakery, too.

According to G.L. Carefoot and E.R. Sprott, in the book Famine on the Wind, an inventive baker who was trying to save flour that had been spoiled by a grain fungus called smut may have developed gingerbread. The smut caused the flour to be discolored and rancid so a little molasses for sweetening and coloration and enough ginger to mask the foul taste. History was made if, in fact, this is true.

Since medieval times the gingerbread became a popular food item at bakeries and fairs where women would buy gingerbread “husbands” believing that by eating them their chances of meeting a real husband would increase.  By the 17th century in England, gingerbread bakers had the exclusive right to making the bread except on Christmas and Easter. This prohibition except during the holidays is likely why they are so closely associated with Christmas. 

Gingerbread was really brought into the mainstream in the 19th century when the brothers Grimm published a collection of German tales including that of Hansel and Gretel and their house made of gingerbread. Children everywhere now had romantic notions about gingerbread houses, gingerbread men and women and gingerbread cookies. 

So, when you enjoy gingerbread treats this holiday season think of the rhizome, the smutty flour and the frugal baker. And if you would like to grow them yourself a good mail order source is Stoke’s Tropicals at www.stokestropicals.com or call 1-800-624-9706.  

Happy holidays.