Monday, October 5, 2015

Spice up autumn with a squeeze of pinecone ginger

When I give a gentle squeeze to the red ‘cone’ of pinecone ginger, a clear, fragrant liquid seeps out of the plant and onto my hand. It’s not sticky. Rather, it feels fresh and fragrant.

A gentle squeeze releases a an aromatic liquid that feels wonderful when rubbed on skin or hair

If I rub my hands together and inhale deeply, the spicy scent of ginger fills the air. I squeeze a little more juice from the cone to rub onto my arms, face and hair. I like the way it feels on my skin. I’m not alone in appreciating the properties of Zingiber zerumbet. Originally from southeast Asia, pinecone ginger is found in the warm climates of Malaysia, Polynesia, Hawaii, Thailand, China, India and Central America as well as here in Central and South Florida.

Wherever it grows, native people have used the aromatic liquid from the pinecone-shaped bracts to cleanse and condition their hair, which explains why another name for the plant is shampoo ginger.

Here in Central Florida, I think of pinecone ginger as one of many signs of the changing seasons. As temperatures begin to mellow, the plant’s bracts respond by turning from green to red, and one to five small buttery-colored flowers appear on the bract’s upper rim. With tall stalks, broad leaves and the tendency to grow in clumps, pinecone ginger provides a tropical look to the landscape. The red pinecone bracts even make long-lasting and attractive cut flowers.

A solitary bract of pinecone ginger in a vase surrounded by cuttings from two other plants

I began adding pinecone gingers to our landscape too long ago to remember when we planted our first roots. What I do remember is frequently dividing our initial plantings. Because ginger grows from rhizomes, it’s easy to propagate by division. A shovelful taken from the edge of a clump can be transplanted to another location without doing much more than tamping down the soil and giving it a good soak.

On our property, we have pinecone ginger growing in a variety of settings. It surrounds the base of trees in the woods and grows down the slopes of hills. Although it seems to prefer slightly shady locations, it does well in sunny spots too. It is not bothered by pests and, once established, requires no attention other than admiration for its beauty.

A stand of pinecone ginger growing in partial shade beneath a crepe myrtle tree

The only disadvantage to adding pinecone ginger to the landscape is that its beauty is fleeting. The pinecone bracts that begin to turn red in September will last only until the first cold spell. Top growth is killed back when temperatures dip into the 20s. Leaves, stalks and bracts turn brown and fall over onto the ground. Underground growth, however, remains unharmed. When temperatures warm in the spring, tiny new ginger shoots begin to pop through the soil and quickly grow several feet tall. It’s fun to watch as the plant develops into a tall, attractive and aromatic landscape feature.

While the buttery-colored flowers are already in bloom, the pinecone-shaped bract is just beginning to turn red

While the fragrant liquid inside the bracts of pinecone ginger is the only part of the plant I’ve had experience using, many cultures have used the rhizomes for a variety of culinary and medicinal purposes. The grated rhizomes add a spicy zest to a many recipes. In Southeast Asian folk medicine, extracts of the rhizomes treat problems such as worm infestations, inflammation and diarrhea. In traditional Chinese culture, rhizomes are masticated in alcohol to use as a tonic or stimulant. In India, rhizomes softened through cooking are applied to ease the pain of toothaches while native Hawaiians use the softened rhizomes to treat headaches.

Pinecone ginger makes a colorful, fragrant and useful addition to the landscape

I like non-fussy plants that are not only fragrant and beautiful but also easy to grow, a cinch to propagate and resistant to disease. I like them even more when they have so many useful functions. Whether I admire the cut bracts in a vase on my kitchen counter or enjoy the spicy scent as I rub the clear liquid onto my skin, pinecone ginger is a plant I’m glad I grow.


  1. I appreciated this. Sometimes I get frustrated when people imply there are "no seasons" in our state. While the shifts are not so obvious as in a Northern climate, there is a rhythm that is subtle and beautiful. Thank you for the reminder and a lovely example of the gifts that take place this time of year in this abundant environment.😃

    1. Rather than being 'no seasons,' Florida has an abundance of season that reflect the sights,sounds and especially the scents of the moment. Thank you for commenting, Nicole. It really helps to know that others, like yourself, understand and appreciate Florida's many wonders.

  2. Love your article on Pinecone Gingers. It has more uses than I realized. A beautiful and unique plant. We have a nice little collection at the Discovery Gardens at the Extension Office in Tavares.

    1. I always enjoy walking through Discover Gardens when I'm in Tavares.

  3. Wonderful to learn of some new Florida flora...from a relatively new resident here missing the up north wonders of the season. Guess I just need to have a little more patience and observance of what's under my nose. :-)

    1. You're in for some fun, Jeannie and Eldy! As newer residents of the Sunshine State, you'll soon discover how many different seasons we have here. I hope you'll explore my site by using the search bar on the upper right corner for "seasons" to find oh-so-many posts about our ever-changing times of year.