Tropical Gardening: Fragrance and color of Hawaiian gardens often due to ginger blossoms

  • Photo courtesy of Voltaire Moise The shell ginger, Alpinia nutans, is a popular garden plant grown from sea level to 3,000 feet elevation. It is more tolerant of water stress and sun than many others, but will grow in shady locations as well.

Summer means many fragrant flowers blooming in abundance. Most noticeable is the family of gingers.

Gingers are coming into flower a little late in forests and gardens this year due to cool weather conditions in some areas of the island. Visitors to our Islands frequently comment on how fragrant our air smells with the abundance of flowers in bloom. Kamaaina 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 holds true when it comes to our amazing gardens.


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 leis 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. This means bad smells, so by adding fragrant flowering plants to the landscape, we can actually help to mask unwanted odors. Gingers are among the easiest plants to grow for this purpose.

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 around 50 genera and over 1,300 species in the family, the majority of which are native to tropical regions of the eastern hemisphere.

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 over powering 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 on a wide range of soil types, as long as the soil is moist at all times. Riverbanks and land adjacent to ponds or boggy spots are choice locations, and will support the best growth. If gingers are planted on 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 8 weeks apart. Also, compost and well rotted manures applied every 3 months will help keep the soil sufficiently rich. Planting or transplanting can be done at any season of the year. The parent clump may be divided like any rhizomatous herb. The fleshy underground rhizome may 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. The torch ginger, shell ginger, white ginger, yellow ginger, red ginger and Tahitian red ginger are just a few that 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 true ginger. It is Dichorisandra thyrsifolia from Brazil and is related to the Wandering Jew.


The butterfly-lily, or white ginger, with its heads of white butterfly-like flowers is commonly found growing wild. The extremely fragrant flowers last but a day and are constantly being replenished by a new supply. The flowering period will last for 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 specie common in wet forests and along east Hawaii roadsides.

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.