It is a tropical perennial herb native to Southeast Asia and widely cultivated in China, India, Nigeria, Australia, Jamaica, and Haiti. Its subterranean stem, known as a rhizome, is the edible and medicinal portion of the plant.
The spice came to Europe via Arab traders. In the 13th century the plant was brought by the Arabs in East Africa and in the 16th century by the Portuguese to West Africa.
Traditionally it was used to support the digestive system and to ease discomfort. It is used for dyspeptic symptoms (diffuse abdominal pain), loss of appetite and to help fight the symptoms of travel sickness, as a postoperative antiemetic, as an expectorant and anti-tussive to help relieve bronchitis as well as coughs and colds.