From the roots up

The food chain begins at the roots. These underground miners, pushing their way through mineral rich soil, have been used to nourish and protect animal and humans alike. Literally soaking in the vault of the Earth’s bounty, roots seek the highest quality food for their parent plant above.

From India to Rome, ancient civilizations recognized what cutting-edge nutritional science currently claims as some of the most potent anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial foods created by the plant world. While it takes some care and unearthing, the nutritional benefits are worth the trouble; health starts at the roots.

The word “root” generally includes the portion of a vascular plant below the soil’s surface. There are exceptions to this as some organs functioning as roots are actually “aerial” or “aerating,” these grow above ground or water. Mangrove trees are an example of this type of root. Foods that are considered roots include rhizomes and bulbs, such as onions and garlic. Even Hawai‘i’s taro falls under this generic term. Yet there are two roots that capture the special attention of nutritionists and healers alike. They grow on Kaua‘i and are readily available, if not in the backyard, certainly at all sunshine markets: ginger and turmeric.

Perhaps no other herb, except garlic, crosses all barriers, foods versus medicine, Western versus Oriental, scientific versus folk tradition. Ginger is a universal herb in all respects. Called “zingiber” by botanists and technically considered a rhizome, ginger has been cultivated for so long that its exact origin is unclear. Used for a millennia in both China and India, it reached the West at least 2,000 years ago.

“Dictionary of Nutritional Medicine” states, “The Chinese name jiang means to defend, suggesting that ginger helps protect the body from cold. In modern China ginger is commonly used in Chinese herbal prescriptions. The ginger family of plants is a tropical group, and the genus Zingiber includes about 85 species of aromatic herbs from East Asia and tropical Australia.”

Brightly colored ginger flowers, pink or white, have an aromatic smell, but the root of the white flower is considered the most useful part of the plant. The odor of ginger is penetrating and aromatic, while its taste is spicy and biting. Studies have shown ginger to be especially effective in curbing motion sickness, morning sickness, relieving migraines and easing arthritis. Jacques Cousteau reportedly gave a traditional Polynesian tea to seasick crew members consisting of orange peel, cinnamon and slices of fresh ginger. It also has been noted to reduce irritability and stress due to a phytochemical called cineole — a warm cup of ginger tea at the end of a hectic week might do the trick. Ginger ale, the popular in-flight soda, actually contains very little real ginger — but is still thought to ease the effects of a turbulent flight.

Turmeric is another wonder plant and like ginger, it is the root of the plant that houses the highest nutritional value. Turmeric is often confused with saffron, as its bright orange color is also used to enhance curries and Asian rice dishes.

Turmeric is a member of the ginger family and looks very similar to ginger in its freshest form. Peeling away the thin tan skin, the root is golden. The typical turmeric product comes from boiling, drying and grinding into a bright yellow powder available in the spice isle. Luckily, on Kaua‘i, fresh turmeric is on-hand.

A recent report from Science Daily stated, “Turmeric, one component of curry spice, almost completely prevented joint swelling in rats with arthritis.” Other studies have suggested that the spice could protect against diseases such as heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Many people with arthritis take over-the-counter supplements that contain curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. “The curcumin in curry seems to shut down genes that trigger the development and the spread of breast cancer.” From traditional ayurvedic medicine where the root is hailed for healing women’s reproductive organs and enhancing metabolism to the current scientific studies on its cancer fighting properties, it could be nicknamed the golden root of health.

It is amazing to consider, but not surprising, that many ancient civilizations knew the medicinal properties of the foods they ate without the laboratories of science to prove and publish their findings. The legacy of Hawaiian healers is something that is finally being honored by the wider western community that knew little of this wisdom.

Thinking about root foods symbolically, the way many ancient healers did intuitively, might indicate that they are grounding and stabilizing. Perhaps they can add steadfastness to the wobbly, changeable and rocky road passing quickly beneath our feet.

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