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Ginger
Part I
by Mary Conley

Ginger is a perennial herb which grows from underground rhizomes, which are often mistakenly called the "roots." Botanically it is the rhizome that provides us with its slightly hot, citrus-like taste, and wonderful aroma. Its botanical name is Zingiber officinale and its family name is Zingiberaceae

The rhizome has thick lobes colored from tan to white. A highly valued variety, especially for medicinal uses, has a blue ring circling the fleshy inside of the rhizome. The plant itself has leaves that resemble bamboo and grows up to four feet tall on dark, slim stems. The flower is a pale yellow to green color with soft purple streaks and yields the most fascinating aroma.

History

There are many theories on where ginger originated, the most popular being that it was first found in Southeast Asia. The Sweedish botanist Linnaeus gave it the officinal name of "Zingiber officinale," Zingiber coming from Sanskrit for "singabera" meaning "shaped like a horn."

Ginger is one of 1,400 species of the Zingiberaceae family, which include spices such as tumeric and cardamon. The value of ginger is written about in early literature of ancient Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Ginger growers were considered prosperous by virtue of their crop and ownership of trade routes highly coveted.In the Koran ginger is regarded as a spiritual and heavenly beverage. The presence and cultivation of ginger is written about in the journals of Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama.

By the Middle Ages ginger had found its way into England where a pound of the spice was equal to the value of one sheep. For a long time it was only afforded by the wealthy class. The Spanish, who were notable explorers were the most responsible for taking ginger to other countries and for introducing it into the New World.

Varieties of Ginger

Today ginger is considered one of the worlds favorite spices. There are so many varieties, an estimated 50 in India alone, that to find a favorite is difficult. Each variety has its own unique taste and aroma, depending upon its soil and how it is grown. Pungent varieties can be found in Africa, and milder varieties grown in China.

Anatomy of Ginger

There are four main classifications of ginger's anatomy: pungency or taste; fragrance (essential oil); nutrients (macro/micro); and synergists.

  1. Pungency - ginger's taste holds some of its most important medicinal qualities. It contains an oily-resinous substance called "gingerol." It has been broken down into about 30 elements, the most noted being the "gingerols and shogaols." Fresh ginger contains the "gingerols" but when exposed to air and heat change into the "shogaols," the more pungent of the two. This chemical change is one of the most important aspects of ginger's therapeutic value, and one of the more complex.
  2. Fragrance - ginger's fragrance is a mixture of opposites: citrusy to sweet. The warm, spicy scent comes from its essential oil which makes up about 1.0 to 2.5% of the rhizome. 200 different components of the essential oil have been documented by British Researcher Brian Lawrence.
  3. Nutrients - the nutritional value includes lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, many minerals and vitamins, plus trace nutrients. In some places it is used as a vegetable because it also contains potassium, phosphorus, vitamin C and riboflavin.
  4. Synergists make up the last class with hundreds of ingredients which interact to produce ginger's ultimate effect. Within this category is a protein-digesting enzyme called "zingibain" acting very much like bromelain in pineapple. This enzyme is one of nature's richest proteolytic enzymes. Other constituents include capsaicin, curcumin and limonene which have an array of physical effects.

The chemistry of this plant is so complex that whole textbooks have been written on it. Part 2 will contain the many uses of this amazing plant.


Copyright 1997 Mary Conley. All Rights Reserved.

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