Fingerroot: A flavorful spice bursting with benefits

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Other names for fingerroot include Chinese keys, krachai-dang, temu kunci and Chinese ginger
  • Fingerroot has been traditionally used to help alleviate certain ailments and provide flavors to dishes. Studies show that it may deliver antimicrobial, aphrodisiac and anticancer effects
  • Fingerroot is best grown in sunny and well-lit areas. Harvest mature rhizomes four to five months after planting

Fingerroot (boesenbergia rotunda) is a type of rhizome from the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family. Many people across Asia consider this a valuable addition to meals and potential remedy for certain sicknesses.1 If you're curious about what this vibrant spice has to offer and how you can grow it at home, read this guide.

What is fingerroot?

Fingerroot is well-known as a spice and therapeutic crop2 that's grown in India, Sri Lanka, southern China and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. It's also known as Chinese keys, krachai-dang, temu kunci3 or Chinese ginger.4

Yellow and slender fingerroots come from a small plant that's 50 centimeters (20 inches) tall. It features three to four undivided, elongated and oblong-shaped leaves measuring 7 to 11 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) wide and 25 to 50 centimeters (10 to 20 inches) long.5 The plant bears fragrant pink flowers. Most people grow fingerroot from cuttings as an ornamental plant, although the rhizomes and roots can be used for other purposes.6

Health benefits of fingerroot

Fingerroot exhibits the following health-boosting properties:7

  • Antifungal
  • Antibacterial
  • Antimicrobial
  • Antiparasitic (assists with eliminating helminth and round worms in your intestines)
  • Anticancer
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant
  • Antimutagenic
  • Carminative
  • Diuretic

Some studies have also highlighted that fingerroot was used in traditional medicine to help address health problems like:8,9

  • Dental caries, and other tooth and gum diseases
  • Dermatitis
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry cough and cold
  • Swelling
  • Wounds
  • Diarrhea
  • Dysentery

Results of a 2012 Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine study showed that the plant may help alleviate rheumatism, muscle pain, febrifuge, gout, flatulence, stomach aches, dyspepsia, peptic ulcers and skin itchiness caused by mite bites. Fingerroot is also a known ingredient in the traditional Indonesian tonic "jamu," often given to women who just gave birth or used by teenage girls for cosmetic purposes.10

Culinary uses of fingerroot

As a spice, fingerroot is mainly used in Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisines, especially in soups and curries. It can be prepared like typical vegetables, and has an aromatic flavor that can deliver appetite-boosting capabilities.11 The fingerroot plant's leaves, combined with teak tree leaves, may be used to wrap a traditional Indonesian fermented soy bean cake called tempeh. If you have young fingerroots, you can enjoy them raw, too.12

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Components of fingerroot

Multiple substances have been discovered in fingerroot. A 2017 Pharmacognosy Reviews article lists the potentially health-boosting components found in the rhizome:13

  • Flavonoids such as alpinetin, boesenbergin, cardamonin, geraniol, krachaizin, panduratin, pinostrobin, pinocembrin, rotundaflavone, silybin, rubranine, sakuranetin and more
  • Polyphenols like caffeic acid, coumaric acid, chlorogenic acid, hesperidin, kaempferol, naringin and quercetin

What can fingerroot essential oil do?

Essential oil made from fingerroot contains beneficial compounds like:14

  • Terpinene
  • Geraniol
  • Camphor
  • 1,8-cineole
  • Ocimene
  • Myrcene
  • Borneol
  • Camphene
  • Methyl cinnamate
  • Terpineol
  • Geranial
  • Neral
  • Nerolidol
  • Citral
  • Limonene
  • 11-dodecen-1-ol

Additional research noted that essential oil15 and extracts16,17,18 derived from fingerroot exhibited antibacterial properties against bacteria strains.

What do studies say about fingerroot?

Fingerroot possesses antimicrobial properties. One 2006 study found that turmeric and fingerroot extracts worked as a treatment for Mongolian gerbils with gastric lesions caused by a Helicobacter pylori bacterial infection.19

Another study published in the same year found that compounds extracted from the fingerroot plant's roots, namely pinostrobin and red oil, together with dihydroguaiaretic acid from Myristica fragrans (responsible for producing the spices nutmeg and mace20) were effective against the same bacteria.21 Researchers discovered that fingerroot may also exhibit the following health-boosting abilities:

  • Aphrodisiac22 In this 2011 animal study, mature rats that ingested fingerroot juice exhibited better sperm quality, which may be linked to improved fertility.23
  • Anticancer ⁠— Fingerroot extract assisted in inhibiting development of breast, colon, cervical and ovarian cancer cells.24
  • Antimicrobial ⁠— Extracts from ginger, turmeric, fingerroot and galangal (Thai or Siamese ginger25) may combat pathogens that cause spoilage, and potentially work as natural preservative agents.26

How is fingerroot grown?

According to Useful Tropical Plants, fingerroot can be grown in areas where daytime temperatures fall either between 64.4 and 86 degrees F (18 to 30 degrees C) or between 53.6 and 95 degrees F (12 to 35 degrees C). However, if you live somewhere with temperatures that reach 10.4 degrees F (-12 degrees C) to 30.2 degrees F (-1 degrees C), it's probably best not to try to grow this plant, as it may be prone to severe damage or death.

Fingerroot is best grown in moist, well-drained soil with high amounts of organic matter, ideally with pH levels between 6 and 7, or 5.5 and 7.5 if conditions permit.27 A study published in 2015 also highlighted that fingerroot plants may thrive well in a growing medium composed of high amounts of red soil and black soil, with little quantities of sand.28

Cultimate fingerroot in places where annual rainfall falls between 1,200 and 3,000 millimeters (47 to 118 inches), or in some cases, 1,000 and 5,000 millimeters (39 to 197 inches). Grow your plants under full sun or a light shade. Propagating the plants in shady areas may decrease the amount of cineole in fingerroots.

Always make sure to prune your plants, as they can grow through their roots and form into a massive community that you may find difficulty maintaining.

As the plant grows, it will bear long, straight and carrot-like rhizomes. Fingerroot plants may live for five months, producing young shoots and rhizomes you can use in the coming years. You may start harvesting mature roots at least four to five months after planting. If you want to use young fingerroots, wait for around one to two months after planting to harvest them.

What are the possible side effects of fingerroot?

A study conducted on male rats found that fingerroot extracts were safe and didn't trigger side effects.29 However, it's best to stay safe and talk to your doctor before consuming, handling or growing fingerroot. You may have allergies to it or some of its components, or have conditions that may prevent you from reaping its health benefits.

Why it's time to try the vibrant fingerroot

Just like people from Asian countries who have been using it for many years, you may count on fingerroot for potential health benefits. Although it may not be as popular as other members of the ginger family, some studies have proven it may be as beneficial. It's never too late to try adding fingerroot to your dishes to see how you like it.