Siphonochilus aethiopicus (Schweif.) B.L. Burt
Common names: Natal ginger, Wild ginger (English); Wildegemmer (Afrikaans); indungulo, isiphephetho (Zulu)
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.
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 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.
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.
Distribution and habitat
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.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
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 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 and 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
The 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 1989).
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
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer
Flower colour: White, Pink, Yellow
Aspect: Shade, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Average, Challenging