During the Middle Ages, the spicy and pungent root known as galangal was a hot commodity, It was widely traded from its native Indonesia and China throughout Europe. Its popularity in the Western world diminished and until recently you would have been hard-pressed to find someone who would even know what the galangal plant was. Awareness of galangal is increasing thanks to its popularity in a diversity of Asian cuisines, particularly Thai food.
While popularity has increased, sourcing fresh galangal roots can be a challenge. Why not grow your own? Galangal is in the ginger family and grown from the root or rhizomes. Growing galangal is easy. It is a relatively low maintenance plant. Originally from Indonesia and Southwest China, it is an attractive plant with a tropical look for your garden.
Galangal has two forms: greater (Alpinia galanga) and lesser (A. officinarum). The first is larger, as it can grow up to 6 feet in height, and is the more common culinary root. The lesser version has a stronger taste and is most commonly used for medicinal purposes. It has a smaller stature, reaching around 3 feet in height.
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Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Galangal, Thai ginger|
|Scientific Name||Alpinia galanga, Alpinia officinarum|
|Days to Harvest||Roughly a year to harvest|
|Light||Full sun, partial shade when above 90 degrees|
|Water:||Moist soil, avoid soggy conditions|
|Soil||Well-draining, moist soil|
|Fertilizer||Periodic application of balanced blend|
|Pests||Borers, grasshoppers, aphids, spider mites|
|Diseases||Root rot, rust|
All About Galangal
Let’s compare the two types you’d have to choose between when you opt to grow galangal. Both are popular to grow, but one is a bit more widespread.
Greater galangal (Alpinia galanga) is probably the most familiar as it is the version used in culinary applications. It is native to Indonesia and grows about 6 feet tall and has wide blade-like leaves. The small flowers are greenish-white with a dark-red veined tip. The flowers produce red berries. Galangal grows as a perennial and the rhizomes, or roots, are what is harvested and used after about 1 year of growth.
This version of galangal is common in many Asian cuisines and is the main ingredient in making Thai curry pastes, particularly those used with seafood. Its use is similar to ginger, but it is much more dense and rigid. This density lends itself to being grated rather than chopped. The rhizomes have a zingy ginger-reminiscent flavor but are more peppery with a pine aroma. These rhizomes are most often pale yellow to white in color but some varieties are blue-tinged, giving it another name of blue ginger. When dried they have a light brown color.
Lesser galangal (Alpinia officinalis) is most often used in medicinal applications rather than cooking. It has a more pungent and medicinal flavor. The rhizomes are also a light brown to orange in color. It grows smaller and reaches only 3 feet in height and has thin, long leaves. Flowers are also white with red streaks or tips. Its native territory is along the southeast Chinese coast.
Growing galangal is easy in gardens located in warmer climates such as zones 9 or higher. It requires little attention throughout the season. The most difficult is to wait to get it established before harvesting. Climates with harsher winter will have some difficulty and may require extra mulching and use of greenhouse to prevent roots from rotting.
Plant the galangal rhizome when soil has warmed in the spring. Alternatively, you can start indoors in a warm location to get a head start. Avoid soggy or water-logged conditions. Galangal will not tolerate but does need it moist so regularly water in well-drained soil.
To start to grow galangal, you will need warm conditions. It’s recommended to start rhizomes indoors with a heat mat. This will lessen the time for the root to sit and wait for the right conditions to start to sprout. Simply place a rhizome in moist, well-draining soil and cover it with several inches of soil. Several shoots will emerge.
Transplant plants to the garden when any danger of frost has passed. Select a location with full sun. Each rhizome will likely have several eyes or points where shoots will emerge. Place rhizomes 12 inches apart to allow for room of what will ultimately be a larger bushy plant.
Galangal can be grown in a container, raised bed, or in-ground. Because it is a perennial that will require a year to get established before harvesting, consider this long wait in your planning stages. Galangal is frost sensitive so if attempting in a cooler zone you may want to consider a container that can be moved indoors or into a greenhouse.
Also, note that it can get quite tall, up to 6 feet for the greater variety. You do not want to overly shade nearby garden plants, but you may be able to use the shade to your advantage. Once established it is relatively easy to move, but if possible select a permanent location for planting.
Galangal Plant Care
Galangal is a low-maintenance garden plant and conditions are similar for both galangal types.
Sun and Temperature
Provide a location in the garden that will receive full sun for much of the day, particularly in winter. Galangal originates from tropical zones and is best grown in zones 9 and higher. Those areas that get excessive heat should be prepared to water more frequently to provide afternoon shade during the most intense time of the year, particularly if your plants are younger. During winter in cooler zones the galangal will need to have the use of a greenhouse or indoor growing location. Galangal is very sensitive to frost and cold conditions.
Water and Humidity
Galangal will require regular ample water in the beginning. Once the plants are more established during the fall and winter months, less moisture is required. Water frequently and deeply to establish those roots. A drip or soaker hose is very helpful. Then, once the plant is established, watering can be dialed back to just maintaining moist soil. Being a tropical plant, it does like humidity, so if growing in a naturally dry place consider placing it near a fountain or pond.
To grow galangal, you’ll also need well-draining soil. A garden mix with lots of organic matter will allow for drainage while also retaining moisture. The soil should not be allowed to completely dry out or be excessively wet or water-logged. Periodically top-dress with compost and mulch.
Galangal will benefit from regular balanced fertilizing. Use liquid fertilizers on a monthly basis, or when leaves are looking stressed. Amping up the water will also help.
To keep your growing galangal plant looking healthy you can prune away brown, dead leaves or bloomed-out flower stalks with some clean pruning shears. New growth will continue. But note that galangal will not die back like ginger. Browning can be an indication of a problem such as underwatering.
Galangal grows from its tasty rhizome, so make sure not to consume everything you harvest. Leave some of the rhizomes growing to have a continual supply. You can also transplant rhizomes to new planting locations and start new plants.
Harvesting and Storing
It is recommended to let your galangal stand to get well established and grow for 10 months to a year before gathering the roots. The greater galangal variety should be around 6 feet tall and the lesser galangal variety should be 2 ½ – 3 feet tall before harvesting.
Galangal harvests can be done in two different ways. You can either dig up your entire patch, or harvest a few roots at a time.
When doing a large harvest, using a pitchfork or potato fork is preferred to pry out the rhizomes. Be careful to get underneath the rhizomes to avoid breaking damage. If growing in a container, it may be easier to dump the contents out. Save some of the rhizomes and plant again. Rinse off all dirt and cut off the small, stringy roots and the stem. The larger galangal root will scab over and is much denser and sturdy than other roots like ginger or turmeric.
If gathering all gives you too much to process or perhaps you prefer fresh over dried you may want to harvest a few roots at a time on a continual basis. Do this by digging around the base of the clump, revealing the roots, and using a sharp clean knife to cut off what you need. Rebury the root mass. Select a different side of the patch each time to allow previously harvested areas to recover.
Galangal will store fresh in an airtight container for a couple of weeks but is prone to drying out quickly. To store whole roots, wrap in a damp cloth and put in the fridge or freeze. It can also be dehydrated and powdered. Store the dried forms in an air-tight container for months. Dried slices can be rehydrated before cooking. Dried has a more concentrated intensity so adjust the recipe accordingly.
Because galangal is a tropical plant, most problems are related to conditions that are too dry or cold than its natural territory. Fortunately, there are not many pest and disease issues when planting galangal.
Galangal leaves should appear glossy and green. Yellowing might indicate that it doesn’t have sufficient nutrients. Set up the soil with nutrients at the onset of planting and maintain regular feeding. It is also possible that the galangal plants are overcrowded and competing for nutrients. Place rhizomes at least 12 inches apart, and if they are grown to the adult size it may be time to harvest and thin out the plants.
Galangal can be plagued by several pests that eat the underground roots such as borers. When you harvest, if you notice pits on the rhizomes, it might be best to dig all of them up and find a new spot with cleaner soil. Do not replant pitted rhizomes. Period rotating of the galangal location will help over the long-term.
Grasshoppers, aphids, and possibly spider mites might be attracted to your galangal. If your plants are well established the best solution might be to cut off infected leaves. For a moderate infestation, neem oil will handle the aphids and spider mites, while BT may assist with the grasshoppers. Large infestations may require applications of pyrethrin or spinosad.
Ensuring plants are well watered and fertilized will make them less vulnerable to these pests. Unhealthy plants attract more pests.
Rust might be an issue for your galangal, particularly if there is too much moisture and humidity. If you live in a very humid area, avoid watering top growth to minimize rust conditions and spreading to uninfected areas. Prune off any infected portions. Both sulfur and copper based fungicides can be effective for treating large scale infections.
Root rot of the rhizomes can occur if soils are too cold and waterlogged. Take care to select the proper location ensuring plenty of sun and drainage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is galangal and ginger the same thing?
A: No, galangal and ginger are part of the same plant family, Zingiberaceae, and therefore have similar-looking and growing properties. But the taste and culinary uses are distinct.
Q: What does galangal taste like?
A: Galangal is a peppery, ginger-like flavor. Lesser galangal is more pungent and medicinal than greater galangal.
Q: Can you eat galangal leaves?
A: Yes! Galangal leaves are most commonly used to impart flavor in a broth or soup.
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