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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, June 24, 2005

Shampoo ginger has a history of versatility

By Winnie Singeo

It's easy to overlook this somewhat ordinary-looking plant. The "shampoo ginger" is a short, herbaceous plant belonging to the ginger family.

Shampoo ginger, or 'awapuhi kuahiwi, was introduced to Hawai'i by the early Polynesians who used the sap from the flowers as a shampoo.

Winnie Singeo

It looks much like other relatives of the family, with leafy stems that grow from horizontally creeping rhizomes (underground stems). Its scientific name, Zingiber zerumbet, refers to the spreading, antler-like appearance of the stems.

In the summer, the plants that have largely gone unnoticed since the previous winter suddenly perk up. New leafy stems emerge from ground level and grow to be about 2 to 3 feet tall. Leaves are followed by the emergence of flowering shoots, also from ground level.

About 1 to 2 feet tall, the flowering shoots develop expanded tips that look like pine cones. The swollen flowering tops actually are composed of modified, overlapping leaves called bracts.

From between the bracts, white to yellowish flowers emerge, a few at a time. Even the 1- to 2-inch-long flowers are easy to overlook, blending into the surrounding greenery.

After several weeks, most of the flowers wither into barely visible dried threads. But the flowering heads gradually turn a bright, eye-catching red. The shampoo ginger then gets a lot of attention!

Squeeze the bulbous flowering heads and out gushes a gingery-fragrant, watery sap. The slightly slippery liquid has long been used by Polynesians as a natural shampoo. It also was used as a refreshing drink.

Thought to be native to India and widespread in Southeast Asia, the shampoo ginger, or 'awapuhi kuahiwi, was introduced to Hawai'i by early Polynesians. They found many other uses for the versatile plant. Dried and powdered rhizomes were put between kapa, or bark cloth, for storage. Leaves were used as flavoring for foods.

Rhizomes and leaves also were used medicinally to treat cuts and sores, toothaches and headaches, and upset stomachs. Fresh rhizomes were ground, placed in cloth and tied to a sprained limb to give relief.

Modern chemistry has given a name to this anti-inflammatory oil of the shampoo ginger: zerumbone.

Today, the shampoo ginger is an important ingredient of some popular commercial shampoos and soaps. It also makes an attractive addition to a floral arrangement.

The shampoo ginger is a seasonal plant. After flowering, it dries up and becomes dormant. The following year, the cycle is repeated.

For first-time growers, propagation is by division of the rhizomes. Plants do best when grown in slightly acidic soil in a partly shady, evenly moist area.

This plant spreads quickly, so be sure to allow for enough room in your garden!

Winnie Singeo is the director for the Honolulu botanical gardens. Reach Singeo at hbg@honolulu.gov.

Foster Botanical Garden is at 50 N. Vineyard Blvd., and is open daily except for Christmas and New Year's days from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information about the garden, call 522-7066.