Ginger root has many health benefits
Not to be confused with the native plant called wild ginger (Asarum canadense), the tropical ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) has a long history and some promising uses.
Although often called ginger root, the ginger plant is actually grown for its rhizome, an underground stem that sends out roots or shoots.
Oldest known spice
Used in both cooking and traditional medicine, ginger was recorded as early as 500 BCE in China and India. Imported from India, which still produces a third of the world’s ginger today, ginger was known to the ancient Greeks and throughout the Roman Empire. In the early Middle Ages, a pound of ginger cost Europeans as much as a sheep.
Ginger was the first spice to be grown in the New World, in Jamaica in 1585. In fact, George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, would have used “Jamaican ginger” when she baked gingerbread for the Marquis de Lafayette.
From gingerbread and gingersnaps to spicy stir-fries, ginger is perhaps the world’s most versatile spice. It can be used fresh, frozen, dried, powdered, candied, pickled or as an oil or juice.
Ginger beer was first brewed in mid-18th-century England. A non-alcoholic golden ginger ale soon followed. In 1907, the paler, milder version developed by a Canadian was dubbed “Canada Dry Ginger Ale.” A holiday favorite, Richmond’s Hardywood Brewery Gingerbread Stout features locally-grown baby ginger.
Additionally, ginger has been used in traditional herbal medicine, and is being studied by researchers to understand its medicinal effects.
Studies show that ginger may be helpful for the mild nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy, according to my own personal experience and the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Ginger has been used safely in research studies when taken by mouth as a dietary supplement.
The polyphenols in ginger are micronutrients packed with antioxidants. Those antioxidants reduce cell damage by cleaning up free radicals, which have been associated with higher risks of cancer, heart disease, premature aging and other chronic conditions.
A 2019 study done by Virginia State University (VSU) has proven ginger’s polyphenols and antioxidants are extremely high in young or “baby” ginger. In fact, VSU research confirms immature ginger contains about twice as many polyphenols and has two to three times more antioxidation activity than the mature ginger found in most grocery stores.
Researchers at VSU have just received a $600,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to study whether ginger helps combat obesity and other chronic diseases.
The three-year study runs from April 2021 until March 2024. Dr. Rafat Siddiqui, project director and scientist at the Agricultural Research Station at VSU, will collaborate with Cooperative Extension specialists Dr. Reza Rafie and Dr. Theresa Nartea, as well with as Dr. Victoria Volkis of the University at Maryland–Eastern Shore.
How to grow ginger at home
Not only is baby ginger more potent, it can be harvested in seven to eight months, compared to commercial ginger, which takes up to 11 months to mature.
While this tropical plant can grow in your shady garden bed this summer, you must take it inside before the temperature drops below 50°F. Therefore, it is more practical to grow ginger in pots. However, since a full-grown plant may reach a height of four feet, make sure your container will accommodate its growth.
If you begin with either a rhizome intended for planting or one from the grocery store, you should start in the spring six weeks before you plan to take it outside. Although you don’t have time to start from rhizomes this summer, you might purchase a plant online or from a garden center.
Since grocery-store ginger may have been treated with a sprout retardant, soak the rhizome for 24 hours early next spring. Then cut the rhizome into two-inch sections with two to four well-developed growth buds (aka eyes). Sterilize the pieces in a 10% solution of household bleach for ten minutes. Allow the cut ends to dry out and harden for three days.
Plant the sections just below the soil surface in fertile, well-drained soil. Water sparingly until top growth develops.
Once established, water heavily, fertilize monthly and keep the pot in a partial shade. Bring it outside when the temperatures rise above 50°F. Avoid the use of pesticides that could be harmful to humans.
Once the rhizomes are an adequate size, harvest sections carefully: Remove some soil from around the rhizomes, cut off an amount you want and carefully return the soil, allowing the remainder to continue growing. Baby rhizomes must be refrigerated, eaten or processed at harvest, unlike the tough, imported, shelf-stable rhizome in stores.
Growing ginger locally
VSU is studying the feasibility of small-scale farmers growing baby ginger in Virginia as an agricultural crop. Plastic high tunnel planting provides the partial shade ginger requires and a protective cover to extend the growing season.
VSU can provide more information about growing and marketing ginger commercially.
Note: This is not a recommendation or endorsement of ingesting or using ginger for medicinal purposes. Please seek the advice of a medical professional before using this plant or any plant products.
Lela Martin is a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.