Singapore Infopedia


The ginger order Zingiberales has nearly 3,000 species under its eight related plant families: ginger (Zingiberaceae), canna (Cannaceae), spiral ginger (Costaceae), heliconias (Heliconiaceae), orchidanthas (Lowiaceae), prayer plant (Marantaceae), bananas (Musaceae) and bird-of-paradise (Strelitziaceae). Ginger plants flourish in the equatorial zone and may also survive up to altitudes of over 5,000 m.1 It is used in cooking, medicine and beauty products.

Records and studies
One of the earliest records of ginger cultivation was found in Qimin Yaoshu (齐民要术, or “Essential arts for the people”), which featured the agricultural science in 6th century China.2 In the 13th century, ginger on the Malabar coast of India was mentioned during Marco Polo's voyage, and it was a common trading commodity among the Arab and Chinese merchants.3

Danish scientist Johann Gerhard Koenig was the first to collect ginger specimens from the Malay Peninsula during his expeditions in 1778–79, and his descriptions are considered among the best in the classical literature. Other early botanists like Nathaniel Wallich, Joseph Dalton Hooker and John Gilbert Baker also researched on and wrote about the ginger family. Henry Nicholas Ridley, the first scientific director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, wrote the first work focusing solely with the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, published in the June 1899 issue of the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, titled “The Scitamineae of the Malay Peninsula”.4

Important spice crops
The most economically important spice crops under the ginger order are ginger, turmeric, cardamom, galangal and torch ginger, which are all from the ginger family. Over 80 percent of the nearly 1,500 species in the ginger family are grown in Asia and the Pacific.5

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) can be found in India and Sri Lanka.6 It is the third most valuable spice in the world after saffron and vanilla, because it is hand-harvested to ensure that the valuable seeds remain intact.7 In 1875, Singapore Botanic Gardens tried to grow cardamom in Singapore and Penang but was unsuccessful, as the growing conditions at both places were too dry. In Singapore, squirrels would eat the young fruits.8

The cardamom seed pods are used in Asian dishes like spiced rice, vegetables, meat curries and sweets, in tea and coffee in the Middle East, and in pastries and cakes in Europe. Because of its warm, spicy-sweet properties, it is used to flavour cordials, bitters and liqueurs. It also has medicinal uses for headaches, toothaches, earaches and constipation, and disorders of the liver, throat and chest. Cardamon is used in aromatherapy and perfume fragrance.9

Galangal is also known as galanga and blue ginger, or lengkua in Indonesia and Malaysia. The greater galangal (Alpinia galanga) is cultivated in Southeast Asia, India, and other tropical countries.10 The lesser galangal (Alpinia officinarum), known as Chinese keys or fingerroot, is grown mainly in China and looks like a knob with long slender fingers.11 The galangal rhizomes have a pungent taste resembling ginger and pepper, while the lesser galangal has a stronger peppery flavour.12

Used in Southeast Asian cuisine, galangal is often blended with herbal and spice pastes for dishes such as lontong and rendang, while its fragrant and edible yellow-white flowers are often eaten as a vegetable. The seeds are used in Peninsular Malaysia as traditional medicine to treat vomiting, herpes, colic and diarrhoea. In the Philippines, the leaf decoction is used to treat rheumatism, and in Java, the pounded rhizome is applied to wounds and sore. Galangal is also a commonly used herb during the postpartum period.13

A close relative is the sand ginger (Kaempferia galanga), which exudes a woody and camphor smell and is used to marinade poultry. It is facing extinction, because of unsustainable harvesting in the wild throughout Southeast Asia. It is used to treat hypertension, common cold, sprains, ulcers, wounds, swellings, dandruff and rheumatic joints.14

One of the best known and earliest known spices in the ginger family, ginger (Zingiber officinale) was a precious commodity sold by Arab traders in Europe and East Africa from the early times. It is thought to have originated from India. It is cultivated in southern China and throughout the tropics, and has been grown in Melaka since 1416.15

Both the young and mature ginger are used in Southeast Asian cooking and used extensively in Indian cooking. Fresh ginger can be eaten raw, while preserved ginger can be found in jams, marmalades, confectioneries and pickles. Dried ginger in the forms of whole ginger or powdered ginger is derived from the more pungent mature rhizomes.16

As traditional medicine, the versatile ginger relieves cold, inflammations, diarrhoea, stomach disorders, fevers and cramps, and is used abundantly as part of postpartum diet. It also has a reputation as an aphrodisiac.17

Torch ginger
The torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) is cultivated throughout the tropics and is easily recognisable with its attractive flowers.18 As landscape ornamental plants, different coloured varieties are widely grown throughout the tropics, and the waxy-looking inflorescences are sold as cut flowers.19

The immature flower buds, also known as bunga kantan, are commonly used in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand as garnish. In Singapore and Malaysia, the finely chopped flower bud, with a unique piquant and floral fragrance, is added to rojak, Penang laksa and occasionally Peranakan fish curry. In Thailand, it is added to a salad called khaao yam or eaten with a spicy sauce.20 Its zesty flavour can also mask the strong fishy odours in seafood.21 The inner parts of the leafy shoots are used as a spice or vegetable in Southeast Asia, and the fully ripe fruits are eaten or processed as candies.22

The decoction of the plant’s fruits is used to treat earache, headache and stomachache, while the decoction of leaves is used to clean wounds. In some Asian cultures, new mothers use the decoction of leaves for bathing during and after the confinement period. Borneo’s indigenous people use the decoction of fruits as shampoo.23

Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.), also known as “the golden spice” or the “spice of life”, is a native plant in Southeast and South Asia, where India and Sri Lanka supply over 90 percent of the world’s turmeric market. The curcumin pigment gives it a bright yellow-orange colour.24

The harvested rhizomes are boiled and sun-dried before use. The dried turmeric rhizome ground into a fine yellow powder is commonly used in curry powder mixes, as a colouring agent in processed food and sauces, and as a cheaper substitute for saffron. Compared to the powdered form, fresh rhizomes lend a stronger flavour to dishes. Turmeric leaves are used to wrap fish and flavour Malay and Indonesian dishes, like the rice and herb salads nasi ulam and nasi kerabu. The young shoots, rhizome tips and young inflorescences can be eaten raw.25

Turmeric is used in traditional medicine as an antiseptic, tonic, blood purifier and as a cure for jaundice, the common cold and ailments like stomachaches and skin infections. In addition, it is a natural dye for colouring fabrics, paper, food and confectionery.

Turmeric has multiple cultural and religious uses. Laotian monks use turmeric to colour their robes, and in certain parts of India, the turmeric rhizome is worn as amulet for protection against evil spirits. In Singapore, during the Hindu Mundan ceremony, which is often performed during Thaipusam, the head of a child is shaved, washed with holy water and then smeared with sandalwood paste mixed with turmeric.26

Ginger Garden
The Ginger Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens was launched in 2003 to showcase over 550 species, varieties and horticultural cultivars of the ginger order.27 Botanists continue to conduct research on the ginger family in Southeast Asia and discover new ginger species. In November 2014, the National Parks Board published a critically endangered ginger species native to Singapore – named Zingiber singapurense Škorničk,28 or the Singapore ginger – in The Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore.29

Ang Seow Leng

1. Elizabeth Kamaldin, “Getting to Know Gingers,” NParks Buzz 3, no. 38 (2018).
2. Li Hui-Lin, “The Origin of Cultivated Plants in Southeast Asia,” Economic Botany 24, no. 1 (1970): 9. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
3. John W. Parry, “The Story of Spices,” Economic Botany 9, no. 2 (1955): 198. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
4. Kai Larsen et al., Gingers of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, ed. Wong Khoon Meng (Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications (Borneo), 1999), 21–22. (Call no. RSING 584.39 GIN)
5. Jana Leong-Škorničková and Dina Gallick, The Ginger Garden (Singapore: Singapore Botanic Gardens, 2010), 124. (Call no. RSING 584.39095957 LEO)
6. Larsen et al., Gingers of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, 8.
7. Kate Pritchard, “Cardamom,” University of Oxford, Oxford Plants 400, accessed 8 November 2021.
8. Isaac Henry Burkill, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, vol. 1 (London: Published on behalf of the Governments of the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay states by the Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1935), 915. (Call no. RCLOS 634.909595 BUR)
9 Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 18, 26.
10. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 20.
11. Larsen et al., Gingers of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, 9; Curry: Fragrant Dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2006), 258. (Call no. RSEA 641.595 CUR).
12. Lisa Bramen, “What the Heck Do I Do with Galangal?Smithsonian Magazine, 30 June 2011.
13. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 20; “Alpinia Galanga,” National Parks Board, accessed 18 November 2021.
14. Pamelia Chia, Wet Market to Table: A Modern Approach to Fruit & Vegetables (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2019), 192. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 CHI); “Kaempferia Galanga,” National Parks Board, accessed 26 November 2021.
15. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 16; Larsen et al., Gingers of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, 8.
16. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 16; Curry: Fragrant Dishes, 84.
17. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 16.
18. Larsen et al., Gingers of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, 83.
19. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 19; “Alpinia Galanga.”
20. “Etlingera elatior,” National Parks Board, accessed 19 November 2021.
21. Chia, Wet Market to Table, 64.
22. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 19; “Alpinia Galanga.”
23. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 19, 25; “Alpinia Galanga.”
24. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 17; “Curcuma longa L.,” National Parks Board, accessed 22 November 2021.
25. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 17; Devagi Sanmugam and Christopher Tan, Asian Leaves And Roots (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014), 31 (Call no. RSING 641.595 DEV); “Curcuma longa L.
26. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 17, 27, 31; “Curcuma longa L.
27. Leong-Škorničková and Gallick, Ginger Garden, 2.
28. “Zingiber Singapurense Škorničk,” National Parks Board, accessed 22 November 2021.
29. J. Leong- Škorničková, A. Thame and P. T. Chew, “Notes on Singapore Native Zingiberales I: A New Species of Zingeber and Notes on the Identities of Two Further Zingiber Taxa,” The Gardens' Bulletin Singapore 66 no. 2 (2014): 153–67.

The information in this article is valid as of December 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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