Galangal is a medicinal spice plant that is closely related to ginger. Find out what to consider when growing the plant in the garden and in pots, as well as what galangal is.
Galangal (Alpinia) is native to the tropics of Southeast Asia and gained fame and popularity in Europe hundreds of years ago as a medicinal spice plant. Read on to learn how to grow the ginger-like plant and discover the cultural and healing properties of galangal plants.
What is galangal?
The term galangal refers to two distinct but closely related plants:
- lesser galangal (Alpinia officinarum) – used a medicinal plant
- greater galangal (Alpinia galanga) – used as a spice plant
Both species, like ginger (Zingiber officinalis), are members of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae), which is distinguished by underground, thickened rhizomes and a pungent flavour. Galangal most likely arrived in Europe from Southeast Asia in the ninth century via Arab doctors and merchants. From the 11th century onwards, it was mentioned as a medicinal plant in herbal books of various monasteries with Hildegard von Bingen devoting an entire chapter of her book ‘Physica’ to the plant.
Lesser galangal grows to a height of 100 to 150 cm, whereas greater galangal grows to a height of 3 m. Underground, the perennials form densely branched root systems with fleshy rhizomes up to 4 cm thick. They range in colour from reddish-brown to pale yellow, depending on the species. They produce several upright stems with broad lanceolate, glossy green, and white-spotted leaves up to 50 cm long. The young shoots have an aroma reminiscent of cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum). When grown in their native tropical climates, galangal plants produce fragrant inflorescences with white-red flowers. After flowering, they produce edible red fruits up to 1.5 cm in size that can be used as a spice. There are numerous angular, brown-black seeds inside.
What is the difference between galangal and ginger? Galangal and ginger are closely related and both produce underground rhizomes that are among the most important spices in Asian cuisine. A big difference is that fresh galangal tastes more pungent than ginger. They also look different: ginger rhizomes are light brown and irregularly thickened like clubs, whereas galangal roots are more elongated and reddish in colour.
Galangal prefers well-drained, nutrient-rich soil with a slightly acidic pH. Choose a bright, semi-shady, humid and warm spot. In late summer, the temperature fluctuations between day and night can become a problem, as the plant cannot survive below 15 °C. In our latitudes, heated greenhouses and foil tunnels provide ideal conditions for growing galangal; alternatively, it can be grown in a pot in a sunny conservatory. Galangal is rarely available as a whole, dried rhizome, but it can be found as a potted plant in specialist nurseries.
Growing galangal in a pot: choose a pot with a soil volume of at least a 10 litres so that the rhizomes have enough space to develop. Place a 5 to 10 cm drainage layer in the bottom of the pot to prevent excess moisture and waterlogging, which can cause the rhizome to rot. Fill the pot with a nutrient-rich potting soil such as our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost. The peat-free and compost-rich substrate provides all the essential nutrients for root growth and is produced sustainably in Germany. Plant the rhizome about 5 cm deep in soil and water it well. Do not plant already potted specimens deeper than they were previously in the pot. When growing galangal in a heated greenhouse, space plants 30-40cm apart.
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Even though it is important that the rhizomes do not get waterlogged, galangal still needs to be watered regularly. In summer, water nearly every day, as the plant needs a lot of water. However, only water when the soil surface has already dried out somewhat. Keep the humidity high at all times, for example, with the help of a spray bottle.
Galangal has a high nutrient requirement, so feed it regularly. A sufficient supply of nutrients is especially important during the main growing season and when harvesting leaves or rhizomes. Fertilise potted galangal plants regularly with a high quality liquid fertiliser, such as our Plantura Liquid Houseplant Food. Add this to the water once a fortnight during the growing season, to ensure a steady and gentle supply of nutrients and to prevent symptoms of deficiency such as yellow leaves or browning of the leaf edges. Our liquid food comes in sustainable packaging made from 95% recycled plastic.
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Is galangal hardy?
Galangal is not hardy and suffers in temperatures below 15 °C. Move potted plants into warm winter quarters from September. Overwinter the plant indoors in a bright, sheltered and humid spot away from draughts. Galangal’s water requirement decreases significantly in winter, so make sure that the soil is never too wet. Do not fertilise during the winter months.
To propagate galangal, all you need is a part of the rhizome with an eye. Place the rhizome 5 cm deep into loose, nutrient-rich substrate in spring. Larger plants can easily be divided into sections with one eye by cutting the rhizomes with disinfected, sharp secateurs. After about three to four weeks, the first new shoots with leaves will appear. Repot when the galangal plant roots have filled the pot. It is also possible to grow galangal from imported seeds. Before sowing the seeds, soak them in water for one day before sowing them about 0.5 cm deep in nutrient-poor growing soil.
Harvest and storage
Growing galangal requires patience until it can be harvested. In its tropical and subtropical homeland, it takes about three months from planting the rhizome parts to harvesting the rhizomes, whereby the entire plant is then uprooted and not cultivated as a perennial. In European latitudes it takes much longer, sometimes several years, for sufficiently large galangal rhizomes to form before they can be harvested. When harvesting, remove the rhizomes from the soil, cut off the shoots and clean the roots.
In the fridge, rhizomes will stay fresh for two to three weeks after harvesting. For a longer shelf life, it helps to wrap the harvested root in cling film or a damp cotton cloth, as this reduces water loss. Drying galangal will preserve it for several months; to do this, cut the rhizome into thin slices and let it dry. When dried, grind it into powder.
Galangal health benefits
The plant was already known for its medicinal properties in ancient China more than a thousand years ago. In addition to TCM, galangal is used in Ayurvedic medicine as well as in naturopathy. Hildegard von Bingen described galangal’s beneficial effect on blood pressure, heart, and circulation. She advised taking galangal wine to relieve pain. Furthermore, galangal root has antispasmodic, antibacterial, stimulating and digestive properties. However, pregnant women should be careful as excessive consumption may result in a miscarriage or premature birth. Galangal should also be avoided if you have stomach or duodenal ulcers because it stimulates the production of stomach acid.
Galangal is taken in the form of powder, capsules, galangal root tea, homeopathic pills or tinctures. When taken in normal doses, there are no known side effects.
The two types of galangal are used in different ways. The lesser galangal is mainly used as a spice in Asian cuisine, either ground or chopped. It tastes similar to ginger, but slightly spicier. Galangal is a component of the typical cola flavour and is used in many liqueurs and schnapps to aid digestion. The greater galangal is also used as a spice, either as powder or freshly cut rhizome parts.
Apart from ginger, galangal is also related to turmeric (Curcuma longa). Here you will find helpful tips and information on planting, caring for and harvesting turmeric.