Tropical Gardening: Gingers — for fragrance and color

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE

    Not all gingers are fragrant. The spiral flag, a member of the costus ginger group, has long-lasting inflorescence but are perfect for those who don’t care for the sweet odor of yellow and white gingers.

Visitors to our islands frequently comment about how fragrant our air smells with the abundance of flowers in bloom. Kama‘aina often take for granted that which we have in abundance.

When we are in good health, we sometimes don’t appreciate it until we get sick. The same is true when it comes to our amazing gardens.

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Hawaii is blessed with a vast array of flowers, and we use them in the landscape for many reasons. Colorful flowering plants add visual beauty. They are useful for lei and flower arrangements, but an added advantage is that many are fragrant.

Moist, humid tropical climates have the potential for volcanic eruptions, rot and decay. That means bad smells, so by adding colorful and fragrant plants to the landscape, we can help mask unwanted odors.

Gingers are among the easiest plants to grow for this purpose. Many species have naturalized and we tend to think of them as weeds, but we should consider that such plants give us beauty and have valuable uses, as well.

Pharmaceutical companies have studied the ginger family in recent years and found many have medicinal qualities. Even the much maligned Kahili ginger was found to have anti-cancer properties and was used by earlier cultures for a variety of ailments.

Edible ginger, or Zingiber officinale; turmeric, or olena; and cardamom are spices but originally were used as medicines and have antioxidant properties. The ginger used in Thai cooking is galanga and we must not forget the awapuhi kuahiwi, or soap ginger, that early Polynesians brought to Hawaii many centuries ago.

The ginger family is noted for its many colorful and fragrant species. Gingers are related to the banana, palm and bamboo families in that they are monocots. Many come from Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.

There are almost 50 genera and more than 1,300 species in the family, the majority of which are native to tropical regions of the eastern hemisphere. More are being discovered every year.

Most genera are well-adapted to Hawaii’s varied climate. Many grow in the tropical zone, but some will thrive at 6,000 feet elevation or higher.

Gingers are rhizomatous perennials, generally with simple unbranched above-ground stems. Flowers vary considerably, from small to very showy, and are usually borne in heads. Many of the ginger flowers are very fragrant, so fragrant in some cases that they are overpowering in a small room. Flowers and foliage of many species are excellent for use in floral arrangements.

Gingers are relatively easy to cultivate, and once established require little care. They grow well in a wide range of soil types as long as the soil is moist at all times. River banks and land adjacent to ponds or boggy spots are choice locations, and will support the best growth. If gingers are planted in high dry soils, frequent applications of water are necessary.

Handle gingers the same as bananas. They do best in moist soil high in organic matter. An application of fertilizer in early spring when growth begins and two more applications at the same rate during the growing season will be sufficient. The fertilizer applications should be spaced eight weeks apart.

Also, compost and well-rotted manures applied every three months will help keep the soil sufficiently rich.

Planting or transplanting can be done during any season of the year. The parent clump can be divided like any rhizomatous herb. The fleshy underground rhizome can be severed at any point as long as each piece has at least one good eye to produce a new plant.

Here are some other gingers to consider for your garden.

Torch ginger, red ginger, Tahitian red ginger are just a few you will find at local nurseries. You will sometimes see a plant called blue ginger. It is attractive and easy to grow, but is not a ginger. It is Dichorisandra thyrsifolia from Brazil and is related to wandering Jew.

The butterfly lily, or white ginger, with its heads of white butterfly-like flowers is commonly found. The extremely fragrant flowers last but a day and are constantly being replenished by a new supply. The flowering period will last several months. Although common in the wilds, this is still one of the best for garden fragrance and lei flowers.

The yellow ginger, or Hedychium flavescens, from India is another fragrant species common in wet forests and along East Hawaii roadsides.

There also appear to be hybrids among species. Some are particularly attractive and excellent for long-lasing flower arrangements. Work should be done to select better hybrids and name them much like we have with hibiscus, croton and plumeria.

The shell ginger with its 3- to 8-foot stalks of evergreen foliage is frequently used in sunny, drier conditions than most gingers. Its flowers, with their combination of cream, yellow and red markings, are excellent material for floral arrangements. Leaves are used to dye cloth and as a tea in Japan.

Other gingers to consider are the costus, or spiral gingers. There are many species and varieties.

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The orange flowered Himalayan ginger, Hedychium greeneiis, which is sometimes called the guava jelly ginger, is so cold hardy that it will winter over as far north as Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia if given a little protection. On the Hilo side, you also will see fields of edible ginger grown commercially.

We tend to take gingers for granted in Hawaii, where they grow so easily, but few plant materials give so much for so little work. Try several types if you have the room in your garden.