Butterfly Ginger originates from the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. Here at Savage Kitchen we use one name “Butterfly Ginger” to describe 3 different plants: Kāhili Ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum), White Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium coronarium), and Yellow Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium flavescens). All 3 are very closely related and can be used interchangeably. As the name suggests, the flowers of Butterfly Ginger resemble a butterfly with spread wings. These plants are prized for their beautiful aroma, anticancer properties, and antiinflammatory effects. Because Kāhili Ginger is listed in the “Top 100 Most Invasive Plants on the Planet” by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), we will focus more on it. However, all 3 Butterfly Ginger are invasives in tropical and subtropical locations around the globe.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Overall, Kāhili Ginger is 3-8’ (1-2.5m) tall. The stems of Butterfly Ginger are called a pseudostem, so if you cut them open you will see layers of tightly packed overlapping leaf sheaths. Leaves come off the pseudostem in an alternate leaf pattern, are lance-shaped, and have a smooth leaf edge/margin. All Butterfly Ginger have leaves that are smooth on top, but the undersides can vary in their amount of small fine hairs. Typically, Hedychium gardnerianum has no hairs, or only a small row of hairs, along the center of the midrib underneath. Hedychium coronarium typically has some small fine hairs throughout the underside of the leaf, and Hedychium flavescens has lots of small fine hairs on the entire underside of the leaf.
Kāhili Ginger has yellow flower petals with a red stamen, White Butterfly Ginger has pure white flowers and white stamen, while Yellow Butterfly Ginger a pale creamy yellow flower with yellow stamen. Flower head spikes are a prominent feature and really help with identification during non-flowering times. Kāhili Ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) has a flower spike shaped like a tall narrow column that forms seeds, and both the White Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium coronarium) and Yellow Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium flavescens) have shorter and wider flower spikes comparatively. All Butterfly Ginger form dense rhizome/root mats, and oftentimes have showy pinks and oranges in their overall brown clumping appearance.
There are many ginger plants, growing wild and cultivated in peoples yards, that look like the 3 Hedychium species we are covering as Butterfly Ginger in this app. Remember, you only need to know all of the details for correctly identifying these 3 Butterfly Ginger and then all other plants that don’t fit those details are not Butterfly Ginger and you should not eat them. The easiest method to ensure you have a Butterfly Ginger is to locate the plant when it is flowering, then return to the same plant when it is not flowering to observe it again without flowers. There are some common plants in Hawaiʻi that are mistaken for Butterfly Ginger, contact me if you are interested in learning more.
WHERE IT GROWS
Kāhili Ginger (H. gardnerianum) prefers a mesic habitat, in the shade of a wet forest canopy, and along riverbanks. White (H. coronarium) and Yellow Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium flavescens) grow more typically along forest edges, not as tolerant of full canopy shade.
HOW TO PICK IT
Begin by asking permission. Only take what you will use. Harvest flowers by pulling from the bracts, but with Kāhili Ginger (H. gardnerianum) you can cut the entire flower spike to prevent seed formation and dispersal. Unopened flower buds can also be pulled from the bracts in the flower spikes, however they are easier to pull from White Butterfly Ginger and Yellow Butterfly Ginger. New shoots can be snapped off from the base of rhizome/root mat. When harvesting roots look for somewhere on the edge of the colony, where you can easily dig in to harvest. Remember when harvesting roots that any small piece will resprout, so be mindful when digging to remove any and all small pieces from the forest. If you are bringing roots home to eat, or to dispose of, place into a sealed container so it doesn’t spread during transport. Do not dispose of Butterfly Ginger in a compost pile as they will continue to grow; place all unused portions of rhizome and any seedheads into the trash.
WHEN TO PICK IT
Butterfly Ginger rhizome can be harvested year round. New shoots growing off the rhizome can be harvested any time they are found, mostly spring. Flowers of Kāhili Ginger are typically found during a one-month window, depending on elevation, from mid to late summer in Hawaiʻi. White and Yellow Butterfly Gingers usually have multiple flowerings per year, with exact timing varying depending on elevation and growing conditions.
Wash rhizomes well before use. They can be stored in or out of the refrigerator. New shoots should be washed, and then all outer fibrous leaf layers peeled away to the tender inner core. Processed shoots can then be stored in a sealed container in refrigeration. If not using flowers immediately, hold off on washing until ready to use (unless there are live bugs on them). Store flowers in a sealed container in refrigeration prior to washing. Wash flowers by quickly plunging into cold water, or spray gently. Flowers and rhizomes hold up well during dehydration, and are great in fermented foods as well.
TASTE AND SMELL
Kāhili Ginger flowers are powerfully aromatic. Thick sweet floral, along with licorice notes, a savory meatiness, woody, and hints of citrus all have a heavy or sticky quality. White Butterfly Ginger flowers having a softer, more gentle floral smell that can also be spicy and uplifting. Yellow Butterfly Ginger flowers are strongly floral. New shoots and rhizomes of Butterfly Ginger are astringent, earthy, and floral.
KĀHILI GINGER RECIPES