White Ginger Flower
General Description / Cultural Significance
A subregion of Oceania, Micronesia is comprised of thousands of small islands in the western Pacific Ocean. Close knit with two nearby islands, Polynesia and Melanesia, the region is covered with tropical forests, grasses, and lagoon-side scrubs. The environment has relatively low habitat diversity due to its small size, harsh saline presence, and the impacts of WWII which altered much of the natural habitat. Peeking through the vegetation, the White Ginger Flower, Hedychium coronarium, blooms bright red, yellow, or white, opening to reveal a beautiful, floral scent in the mornings of Micronesia. The perennial flower belongs to the Zingiberaceae family, closer to Ginger than the Lily and can be found commonly growing in shaded areas along riverbanks and shallow waters or at the edge of forests. Hedychium coronarium is known in the region of Micronesia to mean “pertaining to garlands,” cementing the flower’s common use as a floral necklace worn on celebratory occasions.
Hedychium coronarium is widely considered a staple of traditional medicine. The rhizome can be prepared as a topical paste to heal snakebites, bruises, and sprains. This part of the plant is also used to treat diabetes, fever, and headaches, while also reducing inflammation, skin disease, and arthritis. A deconcoction of the stem is gargled by those with tonsillitis and the entirety of the plant has been prized for its abilities to treat malaria. Hedychium coronarium is considered a food plant throughout the region, and the plant’s rhizomes and flowers are consumed like any other vegetable. In Manipu, India, White Ginger Flower rhizome is used to prepare the traditional dish called eromba. The flower’s root extract can be found in all sorts of body and health products and its aromatic flowers are commonly utilized by the perfume industry for their scent. The plant’s essential oil possesses antibacterial, antifungal, antitumor, antioxidant, and antidiabetic properties. Pioneering research on the toxicity of Hedychium coronarium rhizomes and essential oil to mosquitos is revealing the plant’s potential to help control the spread of pathogens and parasites responsible for diseases such as malaria, dengue, and filariasis. Hedychium has always been a genus rich in folkloric traditions and continues to prove a highly useful, highly powerful medicinal force of botany.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
In 2009, Micronesia’s ambassador to the U.N. told ABC News that “even the dead are no longer safe” from the effects of climate change. He gave the correspondent a digital photograph of a man standing shin-deep in a calm and sunny sea. Upon closer inspection, the shadows of graves submerged in water revealed that this was where a cemetery used to be.
That year, scientists told the world that the sea levels around the Micronesian islands would rise three to six and a half feet over the next ninety years. As a country with little infrastructure development for tourism, Micronesians are almost exclusively subsistence farmers. Rising sea level, more erratic storms, extreme droughts, and devastating floods are all affecting the livelihoods of Micronesians. Locals tell of Coconut and other tree forests which have been consumed entirely by the rising ocean. Coral bleaching is claiming the lives of marine life and impacting coastal ecosystem health. The government and people of Micronesia have expressed the difficulty in abandoning the islands for higher elevations abroad, emphasizing that leaving their homeland rather than adapting to the changing circumstances would mean leaving behind their history and culture in every sense.
Hedychium coronarium exists at an interesting crossroads as a plant endangered in some areas and invasive in others. In East Africa and Brazil, White Ginger Flower forms dense thickets that suppress native plant growth. Yet, botanists and locals throughout India have spoken to the commercial exploitation and habitat destruction of Hedychium coronarium which has resulted in a slow disappearance of the once plentiful medicinal plant. Regardless of the varying statuses of the White Ginger Lily, it is undeniable that the humid, forest ecosystems in which Ginger species grow are some of the most threatened natural landscapes across the globe. Deforestation, changes in rainfall and temperature, increased harmful insects, and increased tropical storms are just some of the many ways climate change has left multiple Wild Ginger species endangered. In Micronesia, this is surely the case, as White Ginger Lily’s preference to grow by aquatic areas has left the plant vulnerable to death by flooding and erosion. The people of Micronesia are losing a piece of home every day as climate change encroaches on the islands. Aromatic and medicinal plants such as the White Ginger Lily must be protected by the same measures that the country of Micronesia must be protected, through climate adaptation, reforestation, and, most importantly, the reversal of global carbon emission trends.
Sinter pwetepwet (Pohnpeian, Pohnpei, Micronesia)
Awapuhi-Ke’oke’o (Hawaiian, Hawaii)
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