Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

A Brief Introduction to Ginger’s Family

hibiscusBy Donna Porter

Ginger.  The word, in and of itself, has an essence of beauty and intrigue.  It can stir your senses with images of the exotic, or bring feelings of delight to one’s lips by its soft pronunciation of syllables or to ones taste buds by its savory, tangy flavor.   But, here in the tropics, Ginger brings pleasure to the eyes as well.  It is the name commonly bestowed upon hundreds of plants that belong to the family Zingiberaceae, which include approximately 52 genera and 1,300 species.

Zingiber officinale is the culinary and medicinal ginger whose aromatic, rhizomatous root is world renown. It has been in cultivation in India and China for millennia, and therefore its exact origins are unclear.  Unlike many of its Zingiberaceae relatives, its claim to fame is its swollen, antler-looking roots, and not a colorful, showy flower or handsome foliage.

Currently Costa Rica is one of the major suppliers of ginger root for the US and EU.  Traditionally, the root is gathered when the stalk withers. It is immediately scalded, or washed and scraped, in order to prevent sprouting.  The characteristic odor and flavor of ginger is caused by a mixture of zingerone, shogaols and gingerols – volatile oils that compose one to three percent of the weight of fresh ginger. These chemical compounds found in ginger root also attribute to its world renowned medicinal use for treating nausea caused by motion sickness and morning sickness, and is being currently researched as to its benefits to patients enduring chemotherapy.  Ginger is also commonly used to aid in digestion, relieve flatulence, suppress coughs, reduce inflammation and soothe sore throats.  Along with its fame as a pungent spice in Chinese and Thai cuisine, the soft drink ginger ale is truly the Ginger family’s superstar, which was originally made with real ginger root until synthetic flavorings and cost effectiveness came into play in its production.  True-to-its-name, home-made ginger ale can still be made as a nutritional beverage using freshly grated ginger, cane sugar, lemon, baker’s yeast and water.

The Shampoo Ginger, Zingiber zerumbet, derives its English common name from the knowledge that Hawaiian women use the clear and shiny juices of its mature flower structure as a shampoo and conditioner. It is said that it leaves hair soft and lustrous, either left on or rinsed out.  Here in Costa Rica it is called Maracas, due to the fact that the flowers appear similar to that of the musical percussion instrument.

Along with many of our other tropical beauties, most “flowers” of plants in the Zingiberaceae family are (as you may have guessed) the showy bracts, and not the actual flower.  The true flower is typically small, and inconspicuous, emerging from between the bracts.

The genus, Alpinia, contains many of the most commonly seen gingers in our area and includes the beloved Red Ginger/Ginger Rojo, Alpinia purpurata.  Pink and white cultivars of this species exist, but, unfortunately, the ones that I have seen here in Costa Rica are not as vigorous as the reds.  Even the common Red Ginger has bold and striking cultivars, with assorted variations of flower size, color and form;  the three most popular being ‘Jungle King’, ‘Kimi’ and Hawaiian National winner ‘Eileen MacDonald’.

A few other of the most commonly found locals in the Ginger Family are in the genera Alpinia. Alpinia zerumbret ‘Variegata’, has tall (2 meters or more), upright stalks that support handsome green and white- striped leaves, and Alpinia zerumbret (this is the species, not a cultivar) which is quite handsome also, sporting yellow and green stripped leaves on short (up to 1 meter), outstretched stalks.  Even though both of these Shell Ginger’s flowers pale in comparison to its bright, eye-catching foliage they are still excellent to use in the landscape to add permanent, contrasting color.

Up until recent years, the genus Costus was included in the Zingiberaceae family but has now been re- classified into its own family of Costaceae.   These plants are easily recognized by their delicately-spiraled leaf stalks and found more in untamed gardens and natural settings.  The bracts of this genus (and the Curcuma genus also) are very cone-like in form.   Probably the most adored of the genus is Costus speciosus, due to its large, white, bell-shaped flower that proudly protrude above its reddish-brown bract.  The profuse, white flowers of this Costus can brighten up a shady, understory garden. There are approximately 25 species of Costus that are native to Costa Rica, including C. woodsonii, C malortieanus and C. barbatus.

I am sure that in some part of your Costa Rican travels, many of you have been awed by the magnificent and grandiose flowers of Emperors Cane, Torch-Ginger/ Bastan de Emperador, Etlingera elatior.  The leaf stalks of this large Zingiberaceae can reach heights of 5 meters, while its long, 1 – 1.5 meter flower stalks hold erect its huge, bulbous-like flower structure.  With this trait, one can truly understand why it received its common names; it certainly is deserving of upholding royalty and lighting the way.

There are just too many interesting and charming members in the Zingiberaceas family that deserve notoriety and mentioning, but a book, not a one-page article is necessary.  I think it would be best to just wait and see them all for yourself in the Zingiberaceae collection at the future botanical garden.

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 7 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected],  2777-5149