By Maggy Howe. Photographs by David Prince.
With a long history in the New World and the Old, gingerroot is enmeshed in folklore, food, and healing.
Tingly on the tongue, pungent to the nose, ginger is most familiar to Americans as the spice responsible for the distinctive flavor of Christmas cookies and many Asian dishes. But gingerroot -- established in the New World as early as the 16th century -- has a remarkable medicinal history that is just as long and storied as its culinary one.
During the American Revolution, gingerbread was a staple of both British and American soldiers, as it would harden and keep for a year or longer. Colonists' apothecaries consisted largely of ginger. The fresh root would be grated, added to boiling water, and steeped for 15 minutes; this infusion was then strained and taken with honey as a cure-all for colds, bronchitis, cramps, and congestion. Teas made with ginger were sipped to relieve cold feet and hands or, when combined with other herbs, as a pick-me-up to alleviate fatigue. Gingerroot was also made into a digestive tonic. And a warm plaster or compress of powdered ginger -- often combined with whiskey -- was used to relieve pain.
Early in the 1900s, afternoon tea dances became the rage, and midday teas were accompanied by music and dance. Often a warming tea of ginger, cinnamon, orange slices, and chamomile was served, inspiring the prim and proper ladies to take on a different air while dancing the fox-trot. "Ginger is a stimulating herb," says Judy Griffin, author of Mother Nature's Herbal (Llewellyn Press; 1997; $19.95). "It always gets the blood flowing." Griffin says that ginger aids circulation, making you feel warm when nothing else seems to do the trick. "It warms you up from the inside," she says. "It opens your pores and allows you to sweat, moving the energy outward."
The herb was also the source of superstitions. Growing a ginger plant in the house by placing gingerroot in water, for example, was said to attract health and prosperity. Another myth suggested that ginger's warming effects be used to "warm up the heart": in other words, that ginger would make the people who eat it feel warmer and consequently more loving toward their neighbors.
The most widely used species of ginger ( Zingiber officinale ) comes from China. The root contains most of the plant's medicinal properties. "If you feel a cold coming on, a cup of ginger tea and a warm ginger bath or footbath (add one quart of ginger tea to the bath-water) will help move any mucus or cold symptoms out of the body," says Ms. Griffin. She also suggests placing ginger powder inside slippers or shoes on very cold or damp days when your feet cannot seem to get warm -- no matter how many pairs of socks you put on.
Anyone who has ever soothed an upset stomach with a glass of ginger ale knows that ginger is also a helpful digestive. Sipping ginger tea or chewing on fresh ginger helps digest heavy foods or hearty meals, and children may chew on ginger to ease a stomachache or to relieve motion sickness. In fact, a study reported in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1982 found that ginger was more effective than dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) in reducing motion sickness. "The easiest way to prevent motion sickness is to carry candied ginger in your pocket and suck on it throughout your trip," notes Ms. Griffin. Depending on your weight and size, more candy may be nibbled on every 45 minutes.
Ginger compresses may be used to treat headaches and relieve arthritic aches and pains. Keep a batch of ginger-tea ice cubes in your freezer for making the compresses -- this way, both hot and cold ginger remedies are readily available. For a tension headache, soak a clean washcloth in melted -- but still cold -- ginger-tea ice cubes. Place the cold compress on the back of the neck or the shoulders for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat with fresh, cool tea as necessary. For an arthritis ache, soak a washcloth in warmed tea and apply to the site of the pain. Again, repeat as necessary.
Healing Ginger Recipes
Ginger tea: Grate 2 teaspoons of fresh gingerroot in 1 1/2 cups of room-temperature water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes, then drink.
Candied ginger: Slice fresh gingerroot into 1/2-inch-thick pieces and dip the slices in honey. In a skillet over low heat, cook in a little butter for 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer ginger slices to a cookie sheet and allow them to cool and harden (30 to 40 minutes).
From A Druid's Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year (Destiny Books; 1995; $12.95), by Ellen Evert Hopman:
To clear the sinuses: In a blender, mix to taste vegetable juice (such as V8), grated ginger, powdered cayenne pepper, garlic, horseradish, and lemon. Drink.
For the flu: Grate a few teaspoons of fresh gingerroot. In a tightly covered nonaluminum pan, simmer in water (2 teaspoons ginger per cup) for 20 minutes. Add lemon juice and honey. Drink until mucus becomes thin and clear. For stubborn congestion, add a pinch of cayenne pepper.
Related content on countryliving.com
- Country Living
- Recipes from Country Living
- Recipes for Beauty
- Country Remedies: Tree Lore
- Growing Herbs