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. Aborigines 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 Aboriginal pathways could be detected by the trail of discarded seeds.

Position

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.

Water Use

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

Soil and Fertiliser

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.

Flowering and Fruiting

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.

Pests and Disease

Generally free from serious pests and diseases, native ginger is a great plant to try in chemical-free gardens.

Propagation

Propagation is by seed or rhizome. The seeds don’t like being fussed over, so try sowing as soon as ripe, then leave alone and they should germinate in about 2 months. However, the preferred method of propagation is by dividing the underground stem. So, if you know someone with a plant or you already have some in the garden, the rhizome is easily divided to make new plants and the vigorous root system allows it to establish quickly. Take care not to damage the parent plant.

Harvest

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.

Pruning

Prune as the leaves age and if the plant becomes really untidy, cut off stems to the ground and new shoots will replace those removed.

Uses

Used mostly for storing water and energy, underground roots and tubers are amongst some of the most nutritious bushfoods. Native ginger is high in vitamin B and minerals. (*1)

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 grinded 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.

Other Benefits

A sustainable native garden can provide habitat for native wildlife and native ginger is no exception. The bright blue berries are not only tasty to humans but attract a variety of wildlife including lizards, birds, bees, butterflies and other insects.

Recipes

Lemon Myrtle Chicken with Native Ginger

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/recipes/char-grilled-lemon-myrtle-chicken-with-native-ginger-cooking-wit/8928394

Native Ginger Curry

https://www.daleysfruit.com.au/newsletter/oct2002.htm

Ingredients:

1 tsp vegetable oil
4 tsp finely chopped native ginger root
1 native ginger shoot (Cut into 1cm pieces)
1 tsp red or green curry paste
1 tsp palm sugar
2 lemon ironbark leaves
1 tsp finely chopped Dorrigo Pepper
400ml coconut milk
½ cup cubed sweet potato
½ cup cubed bunya nuts
Your choice of vegetables

Method:

Using vegetable oil sauté the native ginger and curry paste.
Add the coconut milk and reduce by 2/3.
Add the palm sugar, Dorrigo pepper and lemon Ironbark in the final stages.
At the start of the coconut cream reduction, add the native ginger shoot, small cubes of sweet potato and bunya nuts. Steam vegetables separately and serve on the cinnamon myrtle rice. Pour native curry sauce over the top and garnish with native ginger leaf and julienne capsicum.

References

Cribb, A.B & J.W (1974) Wild Food in Australia. Collins, Sydney.
Fern, K (2014) Useful Tropical Plants Database http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Alpinia+caerulea
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. https://www.mary-cairncross.com.au/rainforest-bushtucker-guide.php