Tasty Ginger Grows Wild on the Big Island

August 30, 2019, 9:00 AM HST (Updated August 30, 2019, 9:00 AM)
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Shampoo ginger is the perfect addition to a shady spot in the garden. PC: J.M. Buck

A drive up (or down) the North Hilo, Hāmākua or south Puna coasts in the summertime offers up a plethora of sensory delights: verdant green jungle with Tarzan vines tumbling from the trees, cascading waterfalls, a cacophony of mynah birds, little roadside stores that offer local treats and pure air drenched in the sweet fragrance of ginger blossoms.

I am often asked if the ginger plants that spring up along Big Island roadsides are the same kind of ginger that is used in cooking. That depends on the variety of ginger. There are numerous ginger species and the ones with feather-duster heads of fragrant blossoms growing along the roadside are usually Hedychium—either coronarium, white ginger, or flavescens, yellow ginger. Both are valued as lei flowers, and the white ginger is highly prized in perfumery. Though the rhizomes of the plant are edible, they are tough and highly pungent—not very good for cooking.

Traditionally, the ginger that is found on supermarket shelves is either Thai or Chinese ginger. In the world of wild Hawaiian gingers, their closest edible relative is Zingiber zerumbet—the shampoo ginger. Endemic to India, this species was brought to Hawai‘i on the voyaging canoes of early Polynesian settlers.

Shampoo ginger, called ‘awapuhi kuahiwi in Hawaiian, can be found in shaded jungle gulches and near streams. A low-growing member of the ginger family, in the late summer shampoo ginger produces a bulbous bract with small white flowers that is filled with a fragrant, soap-like fluid.

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Ancient Hawaiians would use this fluid as soap, hair conditioner, lotion and to scent tapa, a cloth made from bark.

It can also make a cool, refreshing drink.

Pork and fish were wrapped in fragrant ‘awapuhi kuahiwi leaves and stalks and cooked in the ‘imu, an underground oven. The roots were sliced, dried, and later pounded into a powder for medicinal purposes. Ginger root provides quick relief for indigestion and upset stomach; is beneficial to the circulatory system and helps relieve upper respiratory ailments.

Shampoo ginger is a nice addition to a semi-shady spot in a lowland garden or yard. They can grow at higher elevations, however they are rarely seen at over 1,500 feet. If you plan to grow some, give them plenty of room to run as the prolific, shallow-rooted rhizomes spread horizontally to create large, dense stands.

To propagate from wild rhizomes, just pull some up from the jungle in late fall, cut off the mature stalks leaving any new buds on the rhizome intact, and plant in a semi-shady spot in moist, heavily composted soil. Keep the ground damp until after new shoots have sprung up and the plants become established.

Gingers love rich, well-aerated, moist soil. Frequent applications of compost and mulching with rotted leaves will keep your plants healthy and happy. This holds true for other gingers, such as ‘olena (turmeric) and ornamental gingers.

Shampoo ginger is a true perennial, producing flower bracts in the summer with leaves and stalks dying back in the fall. The rhizomes will remain dormant until spring when they produce new plants. Rhizomes can be harvested for cooking at any time.

If you wish to cultivate the Thai or Chinese varieties, use fresh, organic rhizomes from the supermarket or health food store. Propagate in the same manner as shampoo ginger.

Happy gardening!

J.M. Buck
J.M. Buck has been a Hawai‘i news writer and columnist since 2003. She has extensive writing experience and has served the media industry in a variety of capacities, including news editor, investigative reporter, online publisher, columnist, web content writer, graphic designer and photographer. She has lived in the Hawaiian Islands for most of her life and is a graduate of University of Hawai‘i.
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