Ginger’s allure makes friends for life

  • Sunday, October 27, 2013

The lure of the butterfly ginger is a strong one. Ease of care, strong architectural presence and longevity make for an exceptional choice when adding new plants to the borders. PHOTO PROVIDED

She peered over the rusty chain link fence dividing her garden from ours. “Would you like a few clumps of my ginger lily,” she said reaching for the shovel indicating her sincere interest in sharing her fortune. As the shovel pierces the sandy surface, she continued on, offering advice the clump of apple green shoots now teetering on the rounded blade. “I find I must divide them every so often so they continue to flower. Afternoon shade is the best and once you have a clump growing, there will always be plenty to go around,” Having these plants back in the garden was like catching up on a conversation with an old friend. Once it’s over, you wonder why it took so long to reconnect. That fall, the long strap-like leaves gave rise to white flowers laded with the aroma of honeysuckle and vanilla, I remembered one again why this plant would forever more have a star spot in my garden.

The butterfly gingers are the essential southern perennial. They exist in our climate in a seemingly effortless state. Seldom picky about their home and almost always willing to show their gratitude with an abundance of disease-free foliate supporting a burst of color and fragrance as the days of August inch closer to fall. The most inexperienced gardener will find the white butterfly ginger, Hedychium coronarium, an easy choice to start the journey of ginger discovery. Hardy, robust and care free, this ginger with its white butterfly-like flowers grows anywhere from five-to-eight-feet tall in a single season. The late August flowering continues on until early November. It is by far the most common and in many instances one of the most shared of all plants in the southern landscape. The rhizomes are fleshy, strong root structures that are totally hardy year round.

From here, the choices will force even the most seasoned plantophile to palpitations of extreme severity. There are so many favorites to choose from, paring it down seems such a disservice to the whole genus of Hedychium. Orange and its shades dominate the many ginger cultivars available to gardeners in this climate. Another species, H.coccineum, sports longs orange flower spikes growing eight feet in height. It has been used to produce many hybrids popular for their bright color. H coccineum‘Disney’ is topped with brilliant orange-red flowers with a mild but intoxicating fragrance. Even though it grows between seven and eight feet in height, its erect stems hold their form throughout the season making it a great choice for tight spaces.

One of my personal favorites is H. ‘Daniel Weeks’. Although it is a rapid spreader, sending its rhizomes in all directions forming three to four feet clumps in a few seasons, the height is unique reaching four to five feet in a season. The golden yellow flowers are by far one of the most fragrant. This plant also has a very long flowering period extending from July until a heavy frost sometime in mid-November.

Those who pine for a tall ginger will satisfy the desire with Hedychium ‘Elizabeth’. nine to 10-feet tall spikes give rise to peachy-red flowers that also carry with it the unmistakable aroma known to ride the evening air on a steamy August night. Variegated foliage can also be had with an introduction called “Dr. Moy.” The foliage looks as though a lazy painter dropped white paint from about, giving the plant a white speckled appearance. “Dr. Moy” flowers a little later in September. A dwarf by comparison it only reaches three to four feet. The peachy orange flowers are wonderfully fragrant.

While gingers are not picky with their wants and needs, adhering to a few simple principles will make them even easier to establish. Moisture and compost are their favorite friends. Adding generous amounts of organic matter such as mushroom compost or our local county compost will ensure good growth with adequate moisture retention. Water in dry periods will help the plants get through the summer growth period producing stems that will support the pineapple like heads that will have the flowers later in the season. The butterfly gingers will grow in full sun or partial shade. I find they like it best in a little afternoon shade. All that being said, if they are grown in full sun, they must have moisture to flourish.

Dig your clumps up every three years in the late spring as the new growth begins to emerge. Divide and save the newest, healthiest rhizomes. This is also the time to share with friends because the bushel baskets will be overflowing with extra plants. For continued shoot production which accounts for continued seasonal bloom, cut the flower stalks to the ground once they are completely through flowering. This in turn lets light get to the lower level of the plant, encouraging more shoot production.

The lure of the butterfly ginger is a strong one. Ease of care, strong architectural presence and longevity make for an exceptional choice when adding new plants to the borders.

Jim Martin is a horticulturist, a founding board member of Charleston Horticultural Society and and executive director of the Charleston Parks Conservancy.

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