Zingiberaceae (Ginger family)

Description. Perennial herbaceous plant, erect, 60100 cm (24-40 in) tall. Pseudostems with 3-5 alternate, lanceolate leaves, 40-60 cm (16-24 in) long. Pink and purple flowers in inflorescences 10-15 cm (4-6 in) long, with 3 petals, each 4-6 cm (1.6-2.4 in) long. Fruit capsules are rarely developed. Plants produce fingerlike brown rhizomes, 20-35 cm (8-14 in) long, with an aromatic, spicy flavor.


Origin and Distribution. Native to lowland rainforests of Southeast Asia and southern China. Widely cultivated in tropical and warm subtropical regions of Asia, but very rarely elsewhere.

Food uses. The fresh or much less often dried rhizomes are used grated or sliced as a spice, especially in Thai, Malay, and Indonesian cuisine. They are often used in curries, especially fish curries, and also as a common ingredient in vegetable stews and fish soups. Grated rhizomes of fingerroot are often cooked with coconut (Cocos nucifera, p. 249) and kaffir limes (Citrus hystrix, p. 66). Fingerroot is an important ingredient in Thai curry paste. Rhizomes are sometimes preserved by pickling. Comments. The rhizome is used in traditional medicine of Southeast Asia to treat wounds, swelling, and diarrhea. The plant is also known by the synonym B. pandurata.

Description. Medium-sized evergreen tree or large shrub with rough, fissured bark, 20-30 m (66-100 ft) tall. Opposite, simple, leathery, elliptic-oblong leaves with finely toothed margins, 6-9 cm (2.4-3.6 in) long by 2-4 cm (0.8-1.6 in) wide. Small white flowers are produced in axillary umbels. Fruit a reddish-brown 3-valved capsule, 1 cm (0.4 in) wide, containing 1-4 seeds with large papery wings.

Origin and Distribution. Native to Ethiopia, Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula. Widely cultivated in eastern Africa from Egypt and Arabia to South Africa and east to Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka. The plant grows naturally in seasonally dry forests and shrubland. Rarely cultivated outside Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Food uses. Freshly harvested leaves and young shoots, which have a bitter-sweet, astringent taste, are chewed for several hours for their stimulating, euphoric, and mildly narcotic effects. Less often they are consumed to suppress hunger and thirst. Fresh or dried leaves are also smoked or used to prepare a stimulating tea.

Comments. Khat is strongly associated with eastern African and Arabic/Middle Eastern traditional cultures, where chewing khat is, for some, part of everyday social life and plays an important role in ceremonies and rituals. Khat, which is predominantly consumed by men on a daily basis, is a highly valued commodity of substantial socioeconomic importance.

Fresh leaves of C. edulis contain cathine, a phenethylamine-type substance related to amphetamines that causes stimulating and anorexic effects on the human body. Continuous use of khat can cause addiction, and excessive consumption can produce symptoms of intoxication and hallucinations.

Description. Evergreen shrub or small tree, 10-15 m (33-50 ft) tall (in cultivation usually 1-1.5 m [3.3-5 ft]). Alternate, dark green, lanceolate leaves 8-20 cm (4-8 in) long by 3-12 cm (1.2-5 in) wide with finely serrated margins. Fragrant white flowers, with numerous yellow stamens and 7-8 petals, are borne singly or in small clusters. Fruits are woody capsules 1.5-2 cm (0.6-0.8 in) long with 3 rounded seeds.

Origin and Distribution. The tea plant is native to humid, cool mountain climates of northern India, Tibet, northern Myanmar, and southwestern China, where it grows at elevations between 1,000 and 1,800 m (3,3005,900 ft). The first recorded drinking of tea occurred in China and dates back to the tenth century BC. Tea is widely cultivated in mountainous regions of the tropics and frost-free regions of the subtropics.

Food uses. The young leaves and buds are harvested to make green or black tea, oolong tea, and white tea. Leaves for green tea are dried and untreated, whereas leaves for black tea are rolled to rupture the leaf tissue followed by a process of enzymatic oxidation, which produces the characteristic brown color and aroma. Different levels of fermentation produce different flavors and kinds of tea, as for instance the post-fermented oolong tea.

Tea, the most popular drink besides water, is consumed worldwide, often with milk, and sweetened with sugar and honey or aromatized with spices and herbs. In northern India and the Himalaya, tea is traditionally consumed with yak milk and salt. The seeds produce a slightly sweetish oil used occasionally for cooking.

Comments. Tea contains more than 700 different chemicals. The dry matter is made up of 3-6% caffeine, 0.1-0.2% theobromin, and 20-30% catechins. The two commercially most important varieties are Chinese tea (C. sinensis var. sinensis) and Indian tea (C. sinensis var. assamica) with well-known tea varieties like ‘Assam’ and ‘Darjeeling’.

The largest producers of tea are China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.

Description. Bushy evergreen tree with reddish, very aromatic bark, 10-12 m (33-39 ft) tall. Leaves opposite, leathery, shiny with prominent parallel veins. Small yellowish-green to cream-white flowers are produced in terminal and axillary panicles. Fruits are black drupes, 1-2 cm (0.4-0.8 in) long with a persistent calyx at base.

Origin and Distribution. C. verum is native to Sri Lanka and parts of southwestern India, where it is indigenous to tropical lowland rainforests. All species of cinnamon are native to South and Southeast Asia.

Food uses. Cinnamon has been a prized spice for millennia. The sweetly fragrant spice is used in a wide variety of bakery goods, candies, pickles, sauces, and beverages, including cinnamon tea and soft drinks. In India and the Middle East, whole pieces of cinnamon bark are used to flavor spicy meat dishes as well as fragrant rice dishes. It is an essential part of curry powder and other spice mixtures like the Arabian baharat. In Mexico, cinnamon is used to flavor chocolate.

Comments. Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of twigs and thin stems, revealed when the outer bark is removed. The bark contains cinnamaldehyde and several other volatile compounds responsible for the unique flavor. It is thought to be one of the oldest spices of mankind and according to legend was used in China during the reign of mythical King Shen-Nung around 3000 BC. In medieval Europe, it was considered one of the most valuable spices.

Cinnamon has a variety of traditional medicinal uses. It was applied to treat diarrhea, flu, and bacterial infections. Because of its antimicrobial activities it was used in ancient Egypt as an enbalming agent. Cinnamon oil, made mostly from Chinese cinnamon, was used in religious ceremonies and burned in temples as incense.

The leading species of cinnamon are Chinese cinnamon (C. aromaticum) and Ceylon cinnamon. Chinese cinnamon has a stronger, spicier taste than Ceylon cinnamon, which is sweeter and more refined. Sri Lanka is the leading producer of cinnamon, with 90% of world production.

Description. Small evergreen tree, 10-12 m (3339 ft) tall. Opposite, dark glossy green leaves with elliptic-ovate blades, 7-20 cm (2.8-8 in) long. White, sweetly fragrant, hermaphroditic flowers are borne in small axillary clusters. Fruit an oval, fleshy drupe, 1-1.5 cm (0.4-0.6 in) long, ripening from green over yellow to a crimson red. Fruits usually contain 2 greenish-white seeds.

Origin and Distribution. Native to mountainous regions of southeastern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yemen, where the plant grows wild as an understory tree in premontane to montane forests. The coffee plant requires a mild, subtropical climate without frost. In the tropics the plant is generally cultivated in humid highlands from 1,200 to 1,800 m (3,900-5,900 ft) elevation with average temperatures between 16 and 24 °C (60-75 °F) and annual rainfall of 1,5002,800 mm (59-110 in). The cultivation of coffee began in Yemen around 900 AD, from there spreading over the Arabian Peninsula and eastern Africa and, in the sixteenth century, to Europe.

Food uses. The seeds of ripe drupes, after being separated from the pulp, are dried, roasted, ground, and brewed to prepare the ubiquitous stimulating drink consumed worldwide. Coffee extracts are used to flavor ice cream, sweets, pastries, and liqueurs. Coffee seeds are a source of caffeine, which is used as a stimulant and as an additive in diet pills and pain medicine. In Africa, a fermented drink from the pulp of ripe fruits is consumed, and the seeds are baked in butter to make rich flat cakes.

Comments. Coffee seeds contain 0.8-1.5% caffeine, which is mainly responsible for their stimulating effects on the central nervous system. C. arabica constitutes about 80% of world coffee production, followed by robusta coffee (C. canephora) at about 20% of world production. The leading coffee-producing countries are Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Colombia.

Description. Small evergreen tree with long, spreading branches, 8-12 m (26-39 ft) tall. Opposite, glossy, dark green leaves elliptic, 20-35 cm (8-14 in) long by 8-16 cm (3-6.3 in) wide with wavy margins. Fragrant white flowers in dense clusters of 40-60 flowers. Spherical to ovoid, dark red drupes 0.8- 1.6 cm (0.3-0.6 in) long, with 1 or more commonly 2 greenish seeds. Origin and Distribution. Native to Central and West Africa. The plant grows naturally in the humid understory of tropical rainforests and is adapted to a tropical climate with mean temperature between 22 and 26 °C (71-79 °F). Food uses. The roasted seeds of robusta coffee, which contain twice as much caffeine as arabica coffee, are used to make the well-known stimulating hot or cold drink. The aroma of this coffee species, which has a strong, bitter taste, is considered inferior to C. arabica; the seeds are used mainly in low-grade coffee blends, espresso coffee, and instant coffees.

Comments. Robusta coffee constitutes about 20% of world coffee production. The plant is relatively easier to cultivate, requiring less care. It can withstand hot, tropical climates, is more disease resistant, and has a higher yield than arabica coffee. The species is also known by the synonym C. robusta. The plant is cultivated mainly in tropical lowlands of Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, and India.

Description. Small to medium-sized evergreen tree, 8-15 m (26-50 ft) tall. Opposite, dark glossy green, leathery, elliptic leaves 20-40 cm (8-16 in) long by 10-20 cm (4-8 in) wide. Nearly sessile clusters of white flowers are produced along the branches. White corolla tube with 5-8 lobes. Cherry red, ovoid drupes 1.5-2.5 cm (0.6-1 in) long with 2 oval seeds.

Origin and Distribution. Native to Central and West Africa. The plant is adapted to a humid tropical climate and grows from sea level to about 1,000 m (3,300 ft) in equatorial regions. Liberian coffee is usually cultivated in the tropical lowlands of Africa, Southeast Asia (especially Malaysia and the Philippines), and to a much lesser extent in northeastern South America.

Food uses. The roasted seeds have a very strong bitter taste similar to that of C. canephora (robusta coffee, p. 283) and are used to make coffee. The quality of C. liberica is considered inferior to arabica coffee (p. 282) and is therefore used mainly in coffee blends. In Malaysia, the dried leaves, which also contain caffeine, are used to make a tealike hot beverage.

Comments. C. liberica accounts for about only 1% of world coffee production. It produces larger fruits and seeds than the other two coffee species and the plant is tolerant of poor soils and hot, wet tropical conditions. It was introduced in the nineteenth century into several coffee-producing regions, including Indonesia, after a fungal disease called coffee rust infected and killed many plantations of C. arabica.

Description. Evergreen tree, 10-20 m (33-66 ft) tall. Leaves simple, alternate, 20-30 cm (8-12 in) long, broad-elliptic with wavy margins and a leathery texture. Unisexual flowers, produced in branched panicles, are 2-3 cm (0.8-1.2 in) in diameter with pale yellow sepals streaked with purple. Woody, starshaped, dark green fruits with knobby, irregularly formed rind. Ripe fruits split open and display bright red seeds surrounded by a mealy white pulp.

Origin and Distribution. The tree grows naturally in the understory of wet lowland rainforests in tropical regions of West Africa. It is cultivated mainly in warm, humid climates of Central and West Africa. With the slave trade, the kola nut reached tropical America, where it was occasionally grown in Central and eastern South America. On the Atlantic slope of Central America, old planted kola trees can be seen as remnants in abandoned cacao plantations.

Food uses. In Africa, the nutritious kola nuts are traditionally chewed as a mild stimulant and to suppress hunger and thirst. At first they taste bitter but then begin to taste sweet because of the action of enzymes in saliva. Many African peoples use kola nuts in religious or social ceremonies. Dried and powdered seeds are cooked with milk or water, sugar, and spices.

Extracts of kola seeds are used commercially as a flavoring agent and a source of caffeine for soft drinks like Coca Cola. The red seeds are a potential source of food coloring.

Comments. Kola nuts contain about 45% carbohydrate, 10% protein, 3-5% caffeine, and 0.05% theo-bromin. The seeds of C. acuminata, a closely related species native to West Africa, are used both as a stimulant and as a spice. The tree is distinguished from C. nitida by its smaller leaves and fruits with a much smoother surface.

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