Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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Zingiber Officinale
Zingiber officinale
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Zingiber officinale
Zingiber officinale foliage
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Galangalroot
Alpinia galanga rhizome
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Galangal foliage
Alpinia galanga foliage
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Culinary gingers

Why do we import ginger from Australia and Fiji when it grows perfectly well here?
Why aren’t there ginger farms around Auckland and Northland producing NZ’s quota of this important food/spice? Think of all the overseas exchange that would be saved. And the money to be made by market gardeners, especially if they grew it organically. And indeed, why not grow it in the home garden? It is no more tropical or difficult to grow than potatoes or capsicums.
Supermarket ginger, Zingiber officinale, is nowadays a staple item in the diet of most New Zealanders. It has been a basic building block of the human diet throughout Asia for thousands of years and it’s health-enhancing properties are almost unrivalled among foods. It is credited with being one of the most important anti-cancer foods known, and the peoples of Asia have known of its health-giving attributes for centuries. It is used traditionally as a healing medication for stomach and digestive ailments, for purifying the blood and fortifying our disease-fighting abilities. It is famous for treating nausea (including sea-sickness, morning sickness and the after-effects of chemotherapy), rheumatoid arthritis, gout, as well as circulatory and heart problems because it dilates the blood vessels and increases blood-flow. It is useful in moderating cholesterol levels and healing bruising and sprains. It is very high in antioxidants. The list goes on.
Throughout Eastern Asia, even in quite cool areas, almost every household would have its own patch of ginger for household use. We tend to think of it as a tropical crop but in fact it is a deciduous perennial plant whose foliage collapses and disappears during Winter and emerges again in Spring. The iris-like rhizomes that we buy in the supermarket remain under-ground until needed. At any time of the year, when I need ginger for the kitchen, I just go to the garden with a sharp knife, scratch away the soil from the rhizomes and cut a piece off for dinner. It is succulent, juicy, flavourful and sweet because it hasn’t dried out and shriveled on a ship and a supermarket shelf for weeks. The younger the shoot, the milder and sweeter the flavor.
It needs to be planted in Spring or Summer(October to January) in nicely loosened, friable vege garden soil with plenty of compost. A sandy loam with a good dose of crumbly animal manure and compost is ideal. The slender leafy stems that emerge grow about 60cm to 80cm high through the Summer. In Autumn the leafless flower stems emerge from the soil bearing green cone-like heads from which tiny orchid-like red or cream flowers emerge for several weeks. By mid April these and the leaves begin to die off and collapse for the Winter. The plants need good drainage to survive our Winters outdoors otherwise they can rot if they get waterlogged while dormant. Raised garden beds or tubs are ideal for ginger and while they will grow in full sun, they are probably happiest if they get dappled bright light during the hottest part of the day. Rich feeding with liquid organic manure during the growing season ensures large juicy rhizomes and fast growth. A season’s growth from a rooted piece can produce up to a kilo of ginger root, but the speed of growth can be increased substantially by planting in a tunnel house or conservatory.
Zingiber officinale has many different cultivars in Asia but there are only a handful here. I know of only two but I’m sure there are back yards in NZ cities where Asian immigrants have grown other types for many years.
And no.. it is not a weed and will never threaten our natural environment in the way that Hedychium gardnerianum (Kahili ginger) or even Pinus radiata do.

A very different type of ginger comes from Thailand and is an essential ingredient in many Thai dishes. Its Thai name is ‘Kha’, but it is better known elsewhere as ‘Galangal’ or Alpinia galanga. It is an evergreen tropical ginger with highly aromatic rhizomes whose unique flavor is unmistakeable in authentic Thai food. The taste is sweet and gingery with a hint of piney pungency. The rhizome is hard and fibrous so it is usually sliced and bruised to release the flavor then removed from the food as you eat. If grated it is edible.
Being evergreen it needs as much warmth in Winter as possible. I grow it in a bucket-sized pot which can be dragged into a warm, dry corner through Winter. It needs rich feeding with liquid organic manure but when I need some for Tom Yum soup I tip the plant out of its pot, cut off a young shoot or two with secateurs then pop the plant back in and leave it till next time.
There are several different varieties of Kha. The common form has slightly pink rhizomes and is known as ‘red galangal’. It flowers in late Summer with tall panicles of tiny white and red flowers. ‘White galangal’ is shorter with broader, more quilted leaves, white rhizomes and does not flower. I find the flavor a little milder and the rhizomes less fibrous.
Kha is a handsome plant and easily grown, especially in bright dappled light in a warm spot with rich soil. There is something extraordinarily satisfying on the palate in the balanced combination of lime juice, coriander leaf, fish sauce, chilli, kaffir lime leaf, palm sugar and kha. If you are serious about making real Thai food, freshly cut kha is the magic ingredient that sets it apart from all other cuisines.
Galangal has many of the same medicinal properties as Zingiber officinale because most of the medicinally active compounds are shared by the two species.

(Text and photography copyright © Russell Fransham 2009)