Zingiber officinale Roscoe (Zingiberaceae)



Coloured plate of Zingiber officinale from Bentley and Trimen's Medicinal Plants (1880; vol. 4, t.270). Zingiber officinale growing in Oxford Botanic Garden.

In the late 1780s, three sorts of ginger were being grown in the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of which was Zingiber officinale. As Professor John Sibthorp showed his students their leafy shoots he lamented that 'from the Badness of our Stoves [glasshouses] we have Seldom an opportunity of seeing these Plants in Flower'; we now know ginger very rarely flowers in cultivation. Carolus Linnaeus placed the gingers in a group, the Scitaminea, with other monocot spices such as turmeric and galangal, the name of which was considered 'expressive of dainty treats' by Sibthorp.

The aerial shoots of Zingiber officinale are not true stems, they are pseudostems formed from the tightly overlapping bases of the leaves. These shoots are produced annually from underground stems called rhizomes. The thick, pale brown, hand-like rhizomes have a corky outer layer and a pale yellow, aromatic, fibrous interior; the rhizome is the source of the spice ginger. The flowers, when they are produced, are arranged in cone-shaped spikes and are pale yellow with a purplish lip.

Zingiber officinale is unknown in the wild and has been propagated asexually from rhizomes for millennia. As the peoples of south and southeast Asia moved they took ginger with them as both flavouring and medicine. Consequently, the sites of the original domestication of ginger, and the distribution of its wild relatives, have been obscured by the ebb and flow of peoples over millennia. Circumstantial evidence, from a wide range of different sources, implies India may the origin of ginger.

Ginger was an important spice in Europe from as early as the thirteenth century. However, more than one thousand years earlier it was commonly used in Rome, apparently from plantations in north east Africa. Arabian trade routes had moved ginger west from its eastern origins centuries earlier. In the sixteenth century, Iberian empires transported ginger to West Africa and then to Mexico and Jamaica in the Americas; ginger was the first Old World spice to be grown in the New World.

The phenolic compounds gingerol, gingeridione and shogaol, which give the rhizome its pungency, are also irritants. These irritant properties give us the verb 'to ginger' (enliven) and the slang 'to fig', which was defined by John Badcock, in a 1823 dictionary of sporting slang, as putting ginger 'into the rectum of horses to give them a short-lived vigour'; the horses were apparently 'resentful of the beastly indignity shewn them'!

Further reading

Dalby A 2000. Dangerous tastes. The story of spices. The British Museum Press.

Turner J 2004. Spice. The history of a temptation. Harper Perennial.

Stephen Harris