I know, you can’t find tropical ginger wild in the Pacific Northwest, but I can’t resist writing about my favorite winter plant companion. It is easily gathered from our most common harvesting ground – the local grocery. And gingers’ warm and stimulating disposition makes our cold damp winters almost bearable.
My grandma Betty loved ginger. Whenever I had a cold or an upset stomach, she made me a tea with ginger, honey, and lemon. I still remember how that comforting brew, coupled with her grandmotherly love, could make even my deepest woes dissipate. Ginger has been a life-long friend, both as a culinary spice and as a medicine.
Ginger is a reed-like plant that grows 2-4 feet tall. Creamy yellow flowers have purplish red markings. It is actually the underground rhizome that is used as a culinary spice and medicine, although we say “ginger root.” Rhizomes are sun dried to evaporate off some of their water weight. The flavor varies based on where it grows. Chinese and African ginger are very hot, while Jamaican and Hawaiian ginger tend to be milder and sweeter.
Where it grows
Ginger is native to S.E. Asia and has been imported to many tropical places including Jamaica, China, Africa, India, Hawaii, and the West Indies. Ginger no longer grows in the wild where it is native, but it has naturalized in many tropical climates. Some people in the Northwest are able to grow ginger in greenhouses- some of my friends in Bellingham treasure the local root they get from the farmers market.
Ginger in History
Ginger has been valued as a culinary spice and medicine well before written history. It’s scientific name – “zingiber” is translated as “known already by the ancients” in Arabic and Indian languages. Ginger was one of the first plants that was traded on ancient spice routes from India over land and sea through Arabia, Africa, and into Rome and Greece by way of Arabian traders. It was quickly adopted as a spice and a medicine.
Ginger was one of the most popular spices during the European Renaissanc. Many import stores in Europe were located on “Ginger Street” because it was the most prized trade item. At one time spices including ginger were worth more than gold or silver. How easily we moderns take for granted that we can have it for so little money or effort.
In the Americas ginger has a long and colorful history. It was brought to Jamaica by European sailors, and some of the most valued root is still cultivated there. Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War of 1775 received imported ginger in their food rations – probably because it was believed to dispel chills, fight infection, and promote healthy digestion. Ginger bread, ginger beer, and ginger cookies have been American favorites for centuries.
Ginger is one of the most versatile flavors on our spice rack. I add it to many soups including chicken noodle, black bean, and squash soup. It is used in Indian, Thai, Chinese, and many other cuisines and can be paired with savory flavors like garlic or sweet deserts. One of my favorite recipes is coconut rice pudding with ginger and fresh mango. When in Hawaii, I learned a trick for peeling ginger that has saved me precious time and root. You can easily peel the outer skin by scraping it with a spoon rather than cutting it off with a knife. Another trick for always having fresh ginger is to peel the skin off a good sized chuck of root, then freeze it in a freezer bag. When you want to use ginger, simply grate part of the frozen root with a cheese grater. Dried powdered ginger can also be easily added to food.
Ginger is both a delicious spice and a powerful medicine. In my naivety, I thought I had a good grasp on its medicinal and culinary uses, but my recent research has unveiled new insights about this old and familiar friend.
First and foremost, I think of ginger as a warming circulatory stimulant. You will feel this immediately if you consume it. First it will feel warm in your mouth, then it descends down into your stomach, and with a good dose, you will feel a warming in your limbs. This is a wonderful remedy for people with poor circulation including cold hands and feet. Because ginger increases peripheral circulation, it also stimulates sweating. This can be very beneficial for breaking a fever because sweat cools the surface of our skin, followed by our internal body temperature. Ginger has been used throughout the ages as an aphrodisiac – probably because it stimulates circulation and promotes energy and movement.
Ginger prevents platelet aggregation in our blood, which means that our blood is less likely to be sticky and thick. Because of this, our blood moves more easily through our cardiovascular system, reducing pressure on the heart. In addition, recent research has shown that ginger lowers cholesterol both in the blood and in the liver, and reduces atherosclerosis.
Ginger stimulates the secretion of digestive juices, thereby easing poor appetite and weak digestion. It also acts as a carminative to fight gas and indigestion, and eases diarrhea. Ginger directly fights many food-born illnesses that can thrive in tropical places with little refrigeration – another reason why it is such a popular spice the tropics.
Think of ginger for easing nausea including morning sickness and motion sickness. Try combining fresh squeezed lemon juice (also great for nausea) with a strong ginger ale or ginger tea. I am prone to motion sickness in cars, boats, and airplanes so I keep ginger capsules or ginger candy with me to settle my stomach. Many Northwest Coastal Indian People who participate in the Canoe Journey have told me that ginger capsules eases their motion sickness when they are pulling and the waves are rolling. A scientific study that was published in the Lancet reported that 2 capsules of ginger are more effective than 100 mg of Dramamine – a powerful drug for motion induced nausea.
Ginger contains potent anti-inflammatory compounds. It is a useful remedy for sore throats, asthma, arthritis, prostate inflammation, and other conditions that are improved by reducing inflammation. When herbs reduce inflammation, they also ease pain. Ginger also helps to expel mucus and can ease coughs and deep-seated respiratory congestion including bronchitis.
To make fresh ginger tea, chop the root into thin slices. Use about 1 tablespoon of chopped root per cup of water. Boil for 5 minutes. To make dried ginger tea, use 1 teaspoon of root per cup of cold water. Bring to a boil then turn down and simmer for 5 minutes. Strain, then add honey and lemon if desired.
You will create two amazing products in this one medicine making adventure. Ginger honey can be used in cooking, in tea, or straight on apples, toast, or cookies. Use ginger candy as a tasty medicine or spicy addition to both savory and sweet recipes.
1. Purchase ginger root that is plump and fresh looking.
2. Peel the skin off with a spoon.
3. Slice thin pieces with a sharp knife and place in a double boiler. You can create your own double boiler by placing a small pan in a larger pan that has a little water in it.
4. Cover the ginger root with honey (raw honey if possible) so the honey is covering the ginger by about ½ to 1 inch.
5. Heat the honey on low. The goal is to extract the medicine/juice from the root and then get the honey back to its original thick consistency by evaporating off the juice that was extracted. You can turn the honey on and off for several days. Stirring the warm honey will help water to evaporate. Cover with a lid once it is cooled. Do not let the honey boil or you will lose some of its medicinal and nutritive properties.
6. Once the honey becomes thick again, warm it up then strain it through muslin or cheese cloth. Bottle the honey in a glass jar and store it in a cool dark place. It will last a year or more.
7. Place the strained root on a cookie sheet that is covered with wax paper. Place in the oven or a food dehydrator and heat at a warm temperature (150-175) for several hours. This will help any water that is left in the root to evaporate.
8. Place about ½ – 1 cup of raw cane sugar in a bowl. Place the ginger root in the bowl and toss so that the ginger is coated with the sugar. Sift with a slotted spoon or strainer to remove excess sugar then store in a container. Candied ginger will last for a year or more.
Ginger capsules are a useful medicine to have on hand. I keep them at home and also carry them in my first aid kit. Making your own capsules is easy and inexpensive – and it is a nice activity to do with friends or family. This kind of work where our hands are busy but our minds are free to share stories can be refreshing.
To make capsules purchase ginger root powder and empty “OO” capsules from a local herb store, food coop, or online. Mountain Rose Herbs is a good online source. Place the powder in a small bowl. Pull apart the capsule and press the larger side down right into the powder several times until you feel that it is packed. Slip the smaller side inside it to close the capsule. When you are finished you can rub the capsules on a hand towel to remove the powder. Store capsules in a jar in a cool dry place. Take one to two capsules three times a day.
This tasty tonic brings vitality and warmth to the cold days of winter. Hawthorn is high in flavenoids that protect and strengthen our cardiovascular system. Burdock and sarsparilla are fortifying remedies that support our liver and cleanse our blood.
1 part hawthorn berry
1 part burdock root
½ part sarsparilla root
¼ part ginger root
Weigh herbs. For every 1 ounce of weighed combined herbs, you will use 5 parts of brandy (by volume.) Place herbs and brandy in a glass jar, cover with a lid, then label. Let it sit for at least 2 weeks. Shake the herbs every few days to facilitate extraction. Strain with muslin cloth, then add honey, agave nectar, or maple syrup and vanilla extract to taste. The dose is about 1 teaspoon, or add it to hot tea to help evaporate the alcohol.
Soothing Soak for Sore Muscles
Soaking in ginger tea will make your skin feel warm and will also relieve topical inflammation. This bath salt recipe has been a favorite for treating arthritis, muscular tension, and athletic injuries at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center. We have heard aching elders say that they can get around pain free for a day or two by soaking in these salts!
1 cup sea salt
1 cup Epsom salt
2 Tablespoons baking soda
2 tbsp. powdered ginger
20 drops of a blend of any of following pure essential oils: eucalyptus, wintergreen, peppermint, rosemary, ginger or lavender.
Blend all ingredients together. Store in a covered container. Use ½ to 1 cup per bath.
Nutritional Herbology by Mark Pedersen
Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit by Gabriel Mojay
The Lore of Spices by J.O. Swahn
The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine by Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno
Lecture with Michael Moore, Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. 1995.
And wisdom from my Grandma Betty!