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Alpinia zerumbet (Pers.) B.L.Burtt & R.M.Sm.1972
pronounced: al-PIN-ee-uh ZER-um-bet
(Zingiberaceae — the ginger family)
common names: Pink Porcelain Lily, Shell Ginger
Alpinia was named for Prospero Alpino, 16th century Italian botanist; zerumbet is derived from a Persian word, but I have not been able to find out any details of that word, nor why the species is named for it.
This clumping ornamental ginger is native to eastern Asia, particularly China. It is quite aggressive, and has become naturalized in Brazil and in parts of Florida. It is a rhizomatous, evergreen tropical perennial that grows in upright clumps up to 3 m tall in tropical climates. Where it needs to be grown in a greenhouse, it will usually reach only about 2.5 m, and, as a house plant, about 1 m. It is often called Shell Ginger because its individual flowers, when in bud, resemble sea shells. The rhizomes, when cut, are aromatic with a ginger scent.
The leaves are 2-ranked and glabrous. They are about 60 cm long and 15 cm across. There is a variegated variety, smaller and less aggressive, that has strikingly variegated leaves with irregular stripes of green and yellow. The habit is upright, and the plant does not require staking, as is the case with some other members of the family Zingiberaceae.
Infundibuliform flowers are borne in an inflorescence more than 10 cm long, at the end of a cane which can be anything up to 3 m long. The perianth is basically white, but the bi-lobed labellum is yellow on the inside with red to orange markings. There are 3 stamens, but only one has pollen. There is one pistil.
Many plants in the ginger family have culinary or medicinal uses. This ginger is not commonly used that way, but the leaves and rhizomes do contain the chemicals kavain and dehydrokavain, similar to the kava plant (Piper methysticum) which is known for its relaxing properties. In some places the ground-up leaves of Alpinia zerumbet have been sold as both an anti-hypertension and an anti-stress medication.
In parts of China the leaves of the plant are used for wrapping zongzi. This is a traditional Chinese food, made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in leaves, more usually of bamboo and reeds, and cooked by steaming or boiling. In Japan they are known as chimaki. There are similar traditional dishes in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2008, 2009, 2014
Page last updated 12th July 2018