It’s distinctive taste and scent, and renowned healing properties, has made ginger a popular spice, medical ingredient and essential oil for thousands of years.
The Spanish introduced ginger to the West Indies in the 16th century, and today it is grown in tropical regions throughout the world.
When harvested early, while still green, the rhizomes are crystallized in sugar or preserved in syrup and served as sweetmeats. The best quality preserved ginger, ’stem’ ginger, is made from the youngest shoots and contains very little fiber. The rhizomes, ‘root’ ginger, are available from grocery stores and supermarkets, fresh or dried. When buying fresh ginger look for plump, knobbly rhizomes with firm skin. Ground ginger is widely used in baking, but the commercial grinding process causes rapid evaporation of the essential oil, which is responsible for much of its aroma and taste. It also lacks the high potency required for medicinal purposes.
In Europe, ginger was regarded as an essential ingredient in most meat dishes until the 18th century, as it protected against infection with bacteria in meat. Today, it’s used mainly in sweet dishes - ginger breads, biscuits, cakes and puddings - and in ginger beers and wines. By contrast, in the Orient it’s used almost exclusively in savory dishes.
CAPTURING THE ESSENCE
Ginger essential oil is produced by steam distillation of the dried, unpeeled, freshly ground rhizomes. Most of the oil is distilled in the UK from imported rhizomes, and in China and India where it is extensively cultivated. The essential oil is a pale yellow to light amber or greenish liquid with a warm, pungent, spicy-wood scent. However, it lacks the light, fruity nuances found in the raw plant material. These highly volatile notes are destroyed by the process of steam distillation. If the aroma is liked, ginger oil’s odor effect is described as warming and stimulating. It is also a reputed aphrodisiac.
It is possible to obtain a ginger oil (produced mainly for the food flavoring industry) extracted by carbon dioxide, which retains the delicate top notes found in the raw plant material. It is rarely found in retail outlets because of its relatively high cost. Despite its superior aroma, it is not recommended for aromatherapy massage as it has a different chemical composition that increases the risk of adverse skin reactions.
EAST MEETS WEST
Ancient Chinese medical texts, written more than 2,000 years ago, mention the use of ginger for many complaints, including rheumatism, bacterial dysentery, toothache and malaria. To this day, it features in a great number of medicinal compounds prescribed by Chinese herbal practitioners, either for its healing properties or to buffer the potentially violent effects of other herbs on the digestive system. Ginger is categorized as a ‘yang’ or warming and stimulating herb - a specific for cold, debilitated individuals who have a pale, swollen tongue, and generally for ailments associated with cold, damp weather.
The Romans used ginger compresses for treating advanced cataracts and, in the 12th century, St Hildegarde of Bingen, the mystic and healer, recommended ginger for eye diseases and to ’stimulate the vigor of old men married to young women’.
John Gerard, the Elizabethan physician and author of the famous Herball, first published in 1597, mentions ginger’s digestive qualities and declared it ‘profitable for the stomacke’. In the 17th century, the Elixir of Vitriol, a potent brew of spices featuring ginger, was the inspiration of a German doctor, Adrian Mynsict, who proposed it as a remedy for drunkenness -presumably also for a hangover.
Modern herbal practitioners use ginger to stimulate the digestion and ease flatulence. It has antiseptic properties and is also useful as an expectorant, especially when made into a hot drink combined with lemon and honey. This same warming remedy is helpful for colds and flu, promoting beneficial sweating, which helps eliminate toxins from the system. Ginger tea is recommended for sluggish circulation, especially for people suffering from cold hands and feet, and to ease the symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. A piece of fresh root ginger chewed (crystallized stem ginger would also do) is an effective remedy for travel or motion sickness. A little ginger, perhaps in the form of a ginger nut biscuit, may also help alleviate morning sickness in pregnancy.
Over the past decade, a number of studies have verified the traditional therapeutic uses of ginger, most notably ginger’s ability to quell nausea and improve poor circulation. Studies by Japanese researchers show that ginger can have a tonic effect on the heart and may help to lower high blood pressure. Even more recently, amid great excitement, ginger has been identified by medical researchers at Odense University in Denmark as a particularly effective remedy for the pain and swelling associated with arthritis and rheumatism. The easiest way to take this is as ginger capsules available from health stores. As little as one a day (containing the equivalent of 12g of fresh root ginger) is regarded as the optimum dosage for most people.
Being such a fiery and highly odoriferous oil, ginger should always be used sparingly. Rheumatism, arthritis, muscular pain and stiffness can be eased by baths, hot compresses or massage with the essential oil. It is a good choice to include in a friction rub for sluggish circulation and feelings of fatigue. In steam inhalations, it is helpful for catarrh, colds and flu. It may be inhaled from a tissue to alleviate indigestion and most forms of nausea - but obviously only if the aroma is liked (peppermint oil may be a better choice for some people).
Ginger’s germicidal and fever-reducing properties make it an excellent choice for use as a fumigant when infectious illness is around. Used in the bath and in massage blends, the oil can be helpful for nervous exhaustion and associated loss of libido.
A highly odoriferous oil which needs to be used sparingly. For mood enhancement, ginger harmonizes especially well with citrus and floral oils. To increase its warming quality, blend it with other spices. You can also try these blends:
Mulled Ginger (gently uplifting)
10 ml diluted ginger essential oil
1 drop pure ylang ylang essential oil
2 drops pure mandarin essential oil
Ginger Razzmatazz (robustly awakening)
10 ml diluted ginger essential oil
1 drop pure black pepper essential oil
1 drop pure geranium essential oil
1 drop pure grapefruit essential oil
Add the essential oils to your bottle of diluted ginger oil and shake well.