With ginger, getting to the root of the matter is not the way to go.

The succulent tubular mass that is truly the spice of the season is not a root. It is actually a rhizome, or underground stem. The real roots of this plant creep from the rhizomes into the soil, but will not provide you with that healthy, tasty and spicy holiday zing.

Ginger fills my mind and scents my kitchen. Gingerbread houses and cookies provide the fragrance and snap for my holiday hunger, though my loyalty to ginger spans the entire year.

It is a perennial favorite and a perennial plant. True ginger, Zingiber officinale, is related to galangal, cardamom and turmeric, but surprisingly bears no botanical relation to the wild ginger, Asarum canadense, which is native to the United States. Zingiber hails from Asia and is now also grown in Africa and other tropical locales.

A giant among spices and an international icon, ginger is revered for both taste and health — and has been for a long time. Ginger was mentioned by Confucius, who was “never without ginger when he ate,” is described in the Koran and the Bible, and is even recommended in the Kama Sutra. The last reference wouldn’t have surprised Aristotle, who noted that “Erection is chiefly caused by parsnips, artichokes, turnips, asparagus, candied gingers, acorns bruised to a powder drunk in muscatel.”

Ginger also rises to the occasion for curing a multitude of maladies. It is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic (sweat inducer), and has been used as a stimulant and to prevent nausea and motion sickness. This plant was recommended to prevent the plague and if that didn’t work, the royals placed it into their tombs for nourishment in the afterlife.

At the other end of the life cycle, ginger played a role in ancient China. Families tacked ginger to the door after a birth to absorb the bad character traits that could enter the house through the doorway and infect the newborn. In the Philippines, locals chewed the tuber to ward off evil spirits.

Ginger became so popular that it often sat alongside salt and pepper at the dinner table. English taverns picked up the habit, providing it on the bar for patrons who would sprinkle it on their beer, making, what else, ginger ale.

It was not only the pub patrons that got a jolt from ginger: This spice was also used to kick up a lazy horse. To “gee up” a sluggish stallion, placing a pinch of ginger on the mare’s rump was known to do the trick!

So now we know that ginger can’t be the root of all evil, though it can root out illness and the like. And as much as I want to, I can’t call ginger the root of all resilience either. Maybe I can just call it the superior subterranean stem of sustenance, and call it a day.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.