The History of the Ginger Plant

Overview

The ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) originated in India an estimated 5,000 or so years ago, and it grew in China, Africa and the Caribbean from earliest times. Evidence of its longevity: in the 4th century B.C., the ancient Hindu epic history, "Mahabharata," referred to ginger as one of the spices used to cook meat.

Names

In the 1st century, the Greeks called the ginger plant "zingiberis," which is likely where it derived its botanical name. The Sanskrit word "singabera" defines ginger in India and may come from a combination of Arabic and Greek words that mean "like a horn." This is probably in reference to the shape of ginger rhizomes looking like deer antlers. Its common names internationally include sunthi, East Indian pepper, German ingwer, Italian zenzero jengibre, zangvil, and shouga, among others.

In Rome

It is likely that by the 5th century, the ginger plant made its way to the outside world in the form of potted plants carried aboard trade ships. Exports of ginger from India to Rome indicate its popularity medicinally and as a cooking herb in the kitchens of the Roman Empire. The fall of the Empire also meant the halt of a thriving trade, at least temporarily.

Enhanced Value

Arab traders took over where the Romans left off, although it was not until the 13th and 14th centuries that the ginger trade regained its former stature. The Arab traders who traveled to Africa planted the ginger rhizomes there. Subsequently, ginger provided a treatment for malaria and yellow fever on the African continent. So valued was this special spice, that a pound of ginger cost the same as a whole sheep.

Magic Powers

During the Middle Ages, magic was ascribed to ginger because it was like a preservative when used in cooking and baking, and the dishes made with ginger did not spoil easily.

Medicinal Benefits

Today, both the fresh and the dried ginger rhizomes produce a wide array of medicinal and health products including teas and capsules and to improve circulation. In India, practitioners of traditional Ayurvedic medicine treat cholera, anorexia and inflammation of the liver with ginger rhizomes. Throughout Asia, ginger is a key medicinal product to treat arthritis, migraine and sore throats. In southern India, ginger is an ingredient in a herbal treatment for cattle with gastric problems.

Test Result

According to an information report of 2010 on the Mayo Clinic website, there is evidence from a randomized controlled trial, and an open-label study to suggest that ginger reduces the severity and length of nausea and vomiting resulting from chemotherapy.

Keywords: Zingiber officinale, ginger plant history, zingiberis

About this Author

Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in publications such as "Stanislaus Magazine," "Orientations," "The Asia Magazine" and "The Peninsula Group Magazine." She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.