1902 Encyclopedia > Ginger


GINGER (French, Gingermbre; German, ingwer), the rhizome or underground stem of Zingiber officinale, Roscoe, a perennial reed-like plant growing from 3 to 4 feet high. The flowers and leaves are borne on separate stems, those of the former being shorter than those of the latter, and averaging from 6 to 12 inches. The flowers themselves are borne at the apex of the stems in dense ovate oblong cone-like spikes from 2 to 3 inches long, composed of obtuse strongly-imbricated bracts with membranous margins, each bract enclosing a single small sessile flower. The leaves are alternate, bright green, smooth, tapering at both ends, with very short petioles. The plant, though unknown in a wild state, is considered with very good reason to be a native pof the warmer parts of Asia, over which it has been cultivated from an early period, and the rhizome imported into England. Form Asia the plant has spread into the West Indies, South America, western tropical Africa, and Australia.

The use of ginger as a spice has been known form very early times; it was supposed by the Greeks and Romans to be a product of southern Arabia, and was received by them by way of the Red Sea; in India it has also been known from a very remote period, the Greek and Latin names being derived from the Sanskrit. Fluckiger and Hanbury, in their Pharmacographia, give the following notes on the history of ginger. On the authority of Vincent’s Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients, it is stated that in the list of imports from the Red Sea into Alexandria, which in the second century of our era were there liable to the Roman fiscal duty, ginger occurs among other Indian spices. So frequent is the mention of ginger in similar lists during the Middle Ages, that is evidently constituted an important item in the commerce between Europe and the East. It thus appears in the tariff of duties levied at Acre in Palestine about 1173, in that of Barcelona in 121, Murseilles in 1228, and Paris in 1296.

Ginger seems to have been well known in England even before the Norman Conquest, being often referred to in the Anglo-Saxon leech-books of the 11th century. It was very common in the 13th and 14th centuries, ranking next in value to pepper, which was then the commonest of all spices, and costing on an average about 1s 7d. per lb. Three kinds of ginger were known among the merchants of Italy about the middle of the 14th century: - (1) Belledi or Baladi, an Arabic name, which, as applied to ginger, would signify country or wild, and denotes common ginger; (2) Colombino, which refers to Columbum, Kolam, or Quilon, a port in Travancore, frequently mentioned in the Middle Ages; and (3) Micchino, a name which denoted that the spice been brought from or by way of Mecca. Marco Polo seems to have seen the ginger plant both in India and China between 1280 and 1290. John of montecorvino, a missionary friar who visited India about 1292, gives a description of the plant, and refers to the fact of the root being dug up and transported. Nicolo di Condo, a Venetian merchant in the early part of the 15th century, also describes the plant and the collection of the root, as seen by him in India. Though the Venetians received ginger by way of Egypt, some of the superior kinds were taken from India overland by Black Sea. The spice is said to have been introduced into America by Francisco de Mendoza, who took it from the East Indies to New Spain. It seems to have been shipped for commercial purposes from San Domingo as early as 1585, and from Barbados in 1654; so early as 1547 considerable quantities were sent form the West Indies to Spain.

Ginger is known in commerce in two distinct forms, termed respectively coated and uncoated ginger, as having or wanting the epidermis. For the first, the pieces, which are called "races" or "hands," from their irregular palmate form, are washed and simply dried in the sun. In this form ginger presents a brown, more or less irregularly wrinkled or striated surface, and when broken shows a dark brownish fracture, hard, and sometimes horny and resinous. To produce uncoated ginger the rhizomes are washed, scraped, and sun-dried, and are often subjected to a system of bleaching, either from the fumes of burning sulphur or by immersion for a short time in a solution of chlorinated lime. The whitewashed appearance that much of the ginger has, as seen in the shops, is due to the fact of its being washed in whiting and water, or even coated with sulphate of lime. This artificial coating is supposed by some to given the ginger a better appearance; it often, however, covers an inferior quality, and can readily be detected by the ease with which it rubs off, or by its leaving a white powdery substance at the bottom of the jaw in which it is contained. Uncoated ginger, as seen in trade, varies from single joints an inch or less in length to flattish irregularly branched pieces of several joints, the "races" or "hands," and from 3 to 4 inches long; each branch has a depression at its summit showing the former attachment of a leafy stem. The color, when not whitewashed, is a pale buff; it is somewhat rough or fibrous, breaking with a short mealy fracture, and presenting on the surfaces of the broken parts numerous short bristly fibres.

The British market derives its supply of ginger from various parts of the world. The principal sorts, however, or those most commonly found in commerce, are Jamaica, Cochin, Bengal, and African, though each of these in its turn has its several varieties and qualities. The best or most valued kind of all is the Jamaica, and next to it the Cochin. For ordinary purposes uncoated ginger is considered the best; the largest and finest pieces, of a pale buff color both outside and inside, and cutting softly and evenly, are considered the most valuable. The chief sources of supply are the East and West Indies, Sierra Leone, and Egypt.

The principal constituents of ginger are starch, volatile oil (to which the characteristic odor of the spice is due), and resin (to which is attribute its pungency). Its chief use is as a condiment or spice, but as an aromatic and stomachic medicine it is also used internally. "The stimulant, aromatic, and carminative properties render if of much value in atonic dyspepsia, especially if accompanied with much flatulence, and ad an adjunct to purgative medicines to correct griping." Externally applied as rubefacient, it has been found to relieve headache and toothache. The rhizomes, collected in a young green state, washed, scraped, and preserved in syrup, form a delicious preserve, which is largely exported both from the West Indies and from China. Cut up into pieces like lozenges, and preserved in sugar, ginger also forms a very agreeable sweetmeat. (J. R. J)

The article above was written by J. R. Jackson, formerly Curator of the Museum, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

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