As summer turns to fall, gingers start to really put on a show. Though it was in the Caribbean that I first developed a passion for them, they have since become an integral part in all of my personal gardens.
If you have never grown a ginger, then you may be thinking, “Isn’t it an herb or spice?” Indeed both are true. The edible ginger you buy at the store and grate for those zesty chicken dishes is Zingiber officinale. The spice tumeric comes from the ginger known as Curcuma longa. Most of us grow gingers, however, for the lush tropical-looking foliage and spectacular blooms.
When I introduce gardeners to gingers for the first time I usually direct them to the hidden ginger, Curcuma petiolata. It has lush canna-like foliage and a bloom that would make you swear it was grown in Tahiti. The bloom, also called Queen Lily, is a cluster of colorful pinkish-purple waxy bracts with yellow flowers.
The Jewel of Thailand is similar to the hidden ginger but with a larger flower produced higher above the foliage. It is often sold as Curcuma cordata. Then keep your eyes open for Scarlet Fever, a stunning red-stemmed hybrid that has blooms on an adjacent stalk.
The Siam Tulip, Curcuma alismatifolia, is another that should be tried in many more gardens and containers. Pink to purple tulip-looking flowers are produced on long stems reaching 24 to 36 inches in height.
The second group I recommend for beginners is the Hedychium. They offer us some of the most fragrant flowers available for the garden. Consider first the butterfly ginger Hedychium coronarium. White butterfly-shaped flowers with a fragrance as enticing as a gardenia make this plant a winner.
Showier however is the scarlet ginger Hedychium coccineum with its exotic-looking 10-inch-long orange to red floral spikes produced on 6- to 7-foot canes. Tara is the leading variety of the scarlet ginger, but I am partial to one called Peach.
My favorite, though, is the Kahili ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum. This ginger produces enormous clumps with canes topped by clusters of large yellow flowers that have red stamens. It, too, is a perfumed delight! If you live in a frost free area check to see if these are considered invasive. Winters with freezing temperatures keep them in check.
One of the most unusual to try is the shampoo or pinecone ginger, Zingiber zerumbet. The plant produces tall foliage reaching six feet or more followed by a bloom on another stalk adjacent to the canes with foliage.
The bloom is a cone-shaped cluster of green bracts with creamy yellow flowers. As the cone ages, it turns a striking red. The cone is filled with a liquid that is used in shampoos to add silkiness and shininess to hair. The name Awaphui is associated with these hair products. These cut flower stalks make for truly tropical arrangements. It, too, can be grown in zone 7 and warmer.
Gingers thrive in fertile organic rich soil in dappled shade or filtered light. Moisture and fertilizer will keep them growing vigorously, but they do like the soil to be well drained.Feed with a slow release 2-1-2 ratio fertilizer or 12-6-6 with minor nutrients.
Gingers combine wonderfully with bananas, cast iron plants, coleus, elephant ears, ferns, philodendrons and impatiens. Try some and you, too, may find you have a Caribbean soul you can barely control!
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South.”