In the Garden

Rick Barboza


Latin: Zingerber zerumbet

The rhizomes of 'Awapuhi (also known as shampoo ginger) are used to scent and dye kapa while the leaves are used medicinally and also to add flavor to meat. The soapy fluid from within the flower spike is used as a shampoo.

Many other species of ginger like the Kahili, yellow, white and shell types, are highly invasive weeds of Hawaii's mesic and wet forests. On Kauai, Maui, Hawaii -- and even here on Oahu -- hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent annually in eradicating these noxious weeds from our native forests. Sadly, many of these were intentionally planted to better "scent" our hiking trails without knowing the extent of damage they could do.

Description: Leafy shrubs (generally the same "ginger plant" shape) about 3 to 5 feet tall. The leaves and flowers emerge from underground stems called rhizomes. The flowers are whitish to yellow in color, about 2 inches wide, and emerge from a flowering spike which many people mistake for the flower itself.

This spike starts off green and eventually turns dark red and can vary in length from 4 inches to a foot long. Within this spike is a very fragrant and soapy fluid from which the plant gets its common name. This type of 'Awapuhi like many others is deciduous, meaning that it loses its leaves for two to three months a year.

Distribution: 'Awapuhi is not native to Hawaii; it was brought here by Polynesian settlers. This plant is believed to be native to India and then spread by man through Southeast Asia and the rest of the Pacific. It has become naturalized here and can easily be found as an understory plant in disturbed mesic areas on Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Maui and Lanai.

Landscape use and care: Because this plant loses it leaves annually, plant it in an area that will have other plants around it to fill its space when it sets back. Partial to full shade is OK for this plant, as well as full sun. Daily watering will help it look lush and green but is not necessary unless you live in extremely hot areas. Few bugs, if any, are known to bother this plant once it is established in the ground.

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