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The Flowering Plants of Hawaii
by Bruce A. Bohm

Part 65 Zingiberaceae

Zingiber zerumbet
Zingiber zerumbet.
Hedychium gardnerianum
Hedychium gardnerianum. Kahili ginger flowers.

The ginger family, Zingiberaceae, consist of 1275 species sorted into 48 genera (Mabberley, p. 923). The common ginger is Zingiber officinale, while Alpina galanga, Siamese ginger, galangal or Siamese ginger is the species extensively employed in southeast Asian cooking, especially in Thailand. A member of the family widely used in cooking in Asia, Europe and North America is cardamom, which are the seeds of Elettaria cardamomum, an Indian native.

Another familiar member of the family is Curcuma longa, commonly known as turmeric. Turmeric, whose Hawaiian names are `ölena, lena, and mälena, was a Polynesian introduction. Turmeric is a triploid cultigen that probably originated in India where it has been used in preparation of foods, for dyeing cloth, and for medicinal purposes owing to its strong anti-inflammatory activity. Zingiber zerumbet (see image), also a Polynesian introduction, is known in Hawaiian as `awapuhi, `awapuhi kuahiwi (literally, mountain ginger), `öpuhi, or as shampoo ginger. In addition to using the sudsy liquid from the flowers as a shampoo, Hawaiians also used leaves of this ginger to flavor meat, powdered rhizome as a scent for tapa, and ashes as a medicine.

Hedychium, a genus of 50 species native to Madagascar, Indomalaysia, and the Himalayan region, is represented in the Hawaiian Islands by three species one of which has become a significant pest in forested areas of the islands. The problem plant is H. gardnerianum (see images), known as `awapuhi kähili, kähili ginger or just kahili. A kähili is the feathered standard that is a symbol of royalty that would have been carried at the head of a procession in which a member of royalty was traveling. This ginger has one of the most beautiful scents of any tropical plant that I know. It is often possible to smell it well before it is sighted in a forest setting.

Hedychium gardnerianum
Hedychium gardnerianum. Typical growth habit.
Hedychium gardnerianum
Hedychium gardnerianum. Colorful fruit structures.

Kahili ginger, a native of the Himalayan region, has been widely cultivated in tropical countries as an ornamental, but has escaped and become a pest in the Hawaiian Islands. The growth of large colonies block light and cover the ground entirely with a heavy mass of rhizomes that prevents germination of native species. A typical thicket of Kahili ginger is seen in one of the illustrations. Invasion of kahili ginger into closed canopy `öhi`a forests prevents the regeneration of these native forests. The plant has an intensely beautiful aroma and bright red berries that are attractive to birds, who serve as the principal dispersal agent. Seeds and pieces of root/rhizome can be transported to other sites by human activity. Plants will sprout from small root cuttings requiring that physical removal be exhaustive. Cutting at ground level and application of herbicide to the cut ends is one of the methods being used to remove ginger from Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. Some success has been had in biological control through the use of the bacterium Ralstonia (=Pseudomonas) solanacearum which causes wilt. The bacterium does not attack other ginger species.

Hedychium coronarium
Hedychium coronarium. The white ginger. A Starr image.
Hedychium flavescens
Hedychium flavescens. The yellow ginger. A Starr image.

Hedychium coronarium, `awapuhi ke`oke`o, butterfly lily, garland flower, or simply white ginger, is a naturalized species brought to the islands as a decorative plant from Asia (see image).

Etlingera elatior
Etlingera elatior. Torch ginger.

Hedychium flavescens, `awapuhi melemele, the yellow ginger, is very similar to kahili ginger in appearance; it is also an import from Asia that has escaped cultivation (see image). It can be found growing in ditches and other moist disturbed sites.

One of the most spectacular members of the ginger family commonly planted in decorative gardens is torch ginger, Etlingera elatior (see image). This species is native to Malesia. It can easily grow to over six feet (two meters) in height with a flower head the size of a large grapefruit. There is no information, at least that I am aware of, suggesting that torch ginger has become naturalized in the islands. A related species, E. cevuga, commonly called waxflower, has apparently escaped cultivation on O`ahu where a single population has been found. I have not visited that site.


The Flowering Plants of Hawaii Menu

March 21, 2013



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