Wild ginger is a forest floor plant with aromatic rhizomatous roots.
The leaves are deciduous and sprout annually from the underground
stem in spring, they may reach a height of up to 400mm. The leaves
are light green, lance shaped and borne on the end of stem-like
leaf bases. The male and female organs are borne on separate plants,
female plants tend to be smaller than male plants. The small berry-like
fruits are produced at or near ground level after the flowers.
The generic name Siphonochilus is derived from the Greek
siphono meaning tube, and chilus meaning lip in reference
to the shape of the flower. The specific name aethiopicus
means from southern Africa.
The wild ginger has tremendously attractive flowers, which are
borne at ground level and are very short lived. Flowers often appear
before the leaves in spring, perhaps to allow them to be more visible
to pollinators (Nichols 1989). Reminiscent of orchid flowers, the
blooms which are borne from October to February are delicate in
texture, may vary in colour from bright pink to white with a yellow
centre and are delicately scented..
This species was once much more widespread than today. It occured
in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, although it is now thought to be
extinct in KwaZulu-Natal.
This plant is highly prized for its medicinal value and as a result
has been over harvested from the wild to a point just short of total
extinction. The cone shaped rhizomes and fleshy roots are dug up
and sold on the muthi markets around the country. Micropropagation
by tissue culture has brought this species back from the brink of
extinction although the wild populations are reportedly almost totally
depleted. This plant is currently listed in the Red Data book of
South African plants.
The highly aromatic roots have a variety of medicinal and traditional
uses and the native South African people have cultivated this plant
for many years. It is used by the Zulu people as a protection against
lightning and snakes. The rhizomes and roots are chewed fresh to
treat asthma, hysteria, colds, coughs & flu. A preparation of
this plant is administered to horses as prevention against horse
sickness. Wild Ginger is used by the Swati people to treat malaria
and is chewed by women during menstruation.
Growing Siphonochilus aethiopicus
wild ginger is easy to cultivate provided it is given a well-drained,
compost rich soil and a warm, but shady position either in a container
or in the garden. Watering should be reduced to a minimum during
the winter months while the plant is dormant and may be resumed
with the onset of spring. During the growing season plants respond
very well to high levels of feeding with organic matter.(Nichols
According to Nichols (1989), plants can be propagated from seed,
which can take up to a year to germinate. An easier way to propagate
the plant is by dividing the rhizomes when plants are dormant in
winter. Be careful not to remove or damage the roots when splitting
the rhizomes. Plants are also propagated by tissue culture.
The wild ginger belongs to the same family as the true ginger which
is widely used for culinary purposes. This family is reputed to
have a number of important spice plants such as turmeric and cardamom.
There are also a number of very attractive garden plants which belong
to this family.
- Arnold, T.H. & De Wet, B.C. (Eds) 1993. Plants of southern
Africa: names and distribution. Memoirs of the botanical Survey
of South Africa No 62. National Botanical Institute: Pretoria.
- Hitchings, A. 1996. Zulu Medicinal Plants, an inventory. University
of Natal Press: Pietermaritzburg.
- Jackson. W.P. U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South
African plant genera.UCT Ecolab: Capetown.
- Nichols, G. 1989. Some notes on the cultivation of Natal ginger
(Siphonochilus aethiopicus) Veld & Flora 75(3)92-3.
- Pooley, E. 1998. A Field Guide to Wild Flowers KwaZulu-Natal
and the Eastern Region. Natal FloraPublications Trust: Durban.
- Van Wyk, B., Van Outdshoorn, B., Gerike, N. 1997. Medicinal
Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications : Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B. & ., Gerike, N. 2000. Peoples Plants. Briza
Publications : Pretoria.
Andrew Hankey with additions by Yvonne Reynolds
Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden