Native Ginger

Alpinia caerulea

The Native ginger Alpinia caerulea/coerulea is an attractive, easy to grow feature plant  and also a bushfood with a mild, tangy ginger flavour. A perennial clumping herb, also known as wild ginger or blue ginger, it has wide, glossy green leaves and bright blue berries and grows up to two metres high and one metre wide. Although it is an understorey plant naturally found in and near the margins of coastal rainforests or disturbed areas from north of Sydney to Cape York, it is an attractive and useful bushfood plant for your garden.

A relative of edible ginger, cardamom, turmeric and galangal, native ginger also grows from a spicy underground rhizome and both the young root tips, shoots and the fruits are edible. Australian indigenous people traditionally ate the roots and shoots and used the tangy flesh around the seeds to encourage salivation while walking through the forest. It is said that these people’s pathways could be detected by the trail of discarded seeds.

Though native ginger prefers full shade and moist well-drained soil, it is a very hardy plant and will tolerate part to full sun (though very hot sun can burn the leaves). Being understorey plants with tall upright stems they are best positioned for protection from strong or dry winds. In their native tropical and subtropical climates native ginger will thrive – in fact, in the tropical north be careful of it taking over – but even in temperate climates they will do well without much maintenance. In climates well outside their natural range try planting in full shade and keep well-watered and mulched for best results. Not frost tolerant, they are unsuitable for areas of frost unless a correct microclimate can be established.

Lush green foliage (and the attractive red under-leaves of the ‘Atherton’ variety) makes native ginger very suitable for use as a feature or focal plant. It’s a good plant for garden borders or around a pool, to fill gaps and narrow spaces or for mass plantings. In its preferred climate it is also an effective plant for erosion control.

Native ginger also makes a great indoor plant. Though it may not flower or fruit as readily, the roots will carry on growing provided it is getting adequate water and nutrients so why not place a large pot near the kitchen for easy harvesting.

Plants will tolerate periods of dry but prefer moist soil, so water in extended dry periods.

Being a rainforest understory plant that ideally prefers humus-rich soil, feel free to prepare soil by adding compost and fertilise regularly with organic liquid fertiliser or worm juice for lush new growth. Mulch well before Summer. Will tolerate most soil types including sandy soil.

Native ginger bears a stalk of small fragrant white flowers in spring and summer followed by attractive round blue fruits that last on the plant for several months. The fruits (10-18mm in diameter) have a brittle shell-like outer coating containing a mass of black seeds surrounded by a white edible pulp that is very scant but pleasantly lemony. To harvest roots, dig up rhizomes from the edge of the plant to find the new growing tips. This way you can enjoy the best edible part of the plant without removing it entirely or damaging the plant. Berries can be picked straight from the plant. Cut flowers and foliage make attractive indoor decoration. Used mostly for storing water and energy, underground roots and tubers are amongst some of the most nutritious bushfoods.

Rhizomes –With native ginger the young growing tips of the creeping rhizome can be eaten raw or cooked. Raw they are crunchy and refreshing with a mild gingery flavour. In cooking they can be used as a ginger substitute though they have a milder, less spicy taste. They can be used in savoury dishes like curries as a substitute, or in addition to, ginger or galangal, as well as in desserts and marmalades.

Fruit – The pulp that surrounds the seeds is edible but scanty and eaten raw has a pleasant tangy taste. There are a lot of seeds, which arguably shouldn’t be eaten, so sucking off the flesh is just a taste. Only eat berries when ripe (blue not green).  Whole fruits and seeds were traditionally dried and ground to add a sour flavour and red colouring to herbal tea.

Shoots – The underground rhizome sends up new shoots which are also edible raw or cooked and have a mild ginger taste.

Leaves – Great for wrapping food for cooking to impart a slight gingery taste. Try wrapping fish or fresh prawns before steaming.

Useful links to further information
  • Cribb, A.B & J.W (1974) Wild Food in Australia. Collins, Sydney.
  • Fern, K (2014) Useful Tropical Plants Database
  • Hiddins, L (2001) Bush Tucker Field Guide. Penguin Books Australia.
  • (*1) Weatherhead, J (2016) Australian Native Food Harvest – a Guide for the Passionate Cook and Gardener Peppermint Ridge Farm.
  • Wrigley,J & Fagg, M (2007) Australian Native Plants : Cultivation, Use in Landscaping and Propagation. Reed New Holland, Australia.
  • My Local Native Garden: A planting guide to promote biodiversity in Tweed Shire (2017) Tweed Shire Council.
  • Rainforest Bush Tucker Guide (2018) Sunshine Coast Council

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