Ginger is much more than a delightful spice used in baking or a garnish for sushi.
As most local gardeners know, it is a family (Zingiberceae) of tropical plants that come in many sizes and a dazzling array of blooms.
Most varieties are well-suited to our warm, humid environment and can thrive pest-free while adding both dramatic foliage and fascinating flowers to our home gardens. Given a winter with a freeze, gingers may die back to the ground, only to re-emerge in the spring from fleshy rhizomes buried in the ground.
Gardeners like me who are afflicted with a lust for exotic gingers will have the opportunity to satiate their desires today when City Park’s Pelican Greenhouse hosts its monthly sale, starting at 9 a.m. and continuing until noon.
Locally, our best-known gingers are the towering “shell ginger” (Alpinia zerumbet), which can grow to heights of 15 feet, and fragrant “butterfly ginger” (Hedychium coronarium), which grows only about 3 or 4 feet tall.
Shell ginger blooms after two years of growth, so don’t expect to see its shiny pink flowers, arranged in a tapering cone, in the summer immediately after a freeze. But one winter without a killing frost will result in a spectacular display come late May and early June, as each “shell” in the conical cluster opens to reveal a yellow, orange and red throated flower.
Be forewarned about shell ginger, however: It can and will spread shamelessly, its rhizomes overlapping into tight knots that even pick-axes sometimes have trouble separating (I know from experience).
Butterfly ginger is far more tame and can fit politely into most garden designs, adding attractive foliage and delicate flowers (usually white). Long, pointed leaves end in a green cone from which the flowers emerge.
One stalk is too few, however: To ensure the gingers stand upright, it’s necessary to plant them in groups so they can support one another. The fragrance recalls that of gardenias, though perhaps a little less powerful.
If shell and butterfly ginger are the extent of your familiarity with this family of plants, a whole world of color and growth habits awaits you. On a recent visit to the New Orleans Botanical Garden, I scouted out more than a dozen different types of ginger ringing walkways, serving as backdrops in beds, and planted in clumps in the shade of oaks.
The Tropical Garden and the Shade Garden contain the most varieties; you will have to look both high and low if you want to experience the entire range.
Curcuma “Purple Garden” (Curcuma sparganifolia) and Curcuma Chiang Mai Pink (Curcuma alismatifolia) are two very similar low-growing gingers that are best planted in masses. Their long, pointed leaves are light green and ribbed, and the flowers are held aloft like colorful torches. Also called “Siam Tulip,” the Chiang Mai Pink is actually more a pale lavender than a true pink. Tiny white and yellow blossoms emerge from the base of each purple or lavender bract.
Some Curcumas are not terminal bloomers and don’t hold their flowers on stalks, but instead almost conceal them at the base of their leaves. Curcuma Tiki Torch and Curcuma Giant Pink are two of these, and both are colorful hybrids. I had to remind myself to scour beds of low-growing greenery as I did my garden scavenger hunt to make sure I didn’t miss them.
Globba “Purple Globe” (Globba globulifera) and Globba “Yellow Dancing Girls” (Globba schomburgkii) also partially hide their flowers, but not in the same fashion as do Curcumas. In the Globba genus, fanciful blooms dangle from the foliage stalks as the leaves shelter them from the sun. Purple Globe resembles a fuzzy puff ball accented with yellow antenna-like parts, and Yellow Dancing Girls resembles earrings of yellow and white hanging from an earlobe. Because they only grow to heights of one to three feet and crave shade, these gingers work well planted in masses along a sun dappled pathway.
After bending low seeking out blooms on the Curcumas and Globbas, it felt good to stand up and admire the blooms on the “Crepe Ginger” (Costus speciousus) and the Costus Tico Sunrise. Both are called “spiral gingers” because the leaves are arranged in a spiral pattern on the stems, which can grow up to 10 feet tall.
Costus produce cone-like bracts from which flowers emerge. On the Crepe Ginger, the cone is deep red and flowers white, with the texture of crepe paper. Tico Sunrise’s cone is orange and produces mango-colored inflorescences. Costus prefers part sun rather than full. Zingiber “Twice as Nice” affords a look similar to that of Crepe Ginger, but in a more compact form, and blooms both terminally and basally.
Hedychium Disney (Hedychium coccineum “Disney”) stands tall at the back of a bed, its bottlebrush-style inflorescence held straight up in the air at the tip of seven to eight foot stems. Dark green bracts and salmon colored flowers make the inflorescence as visually appealing as it is fragrant.
Now that I have witnessed the incredible variety in the Zingiberceae family, I’ll be first in line at the Pelican Greenhouse sale today, hoping to snag a Zingiber “Twice as Nice,” Crepe Ginger, Costus Tico Sunrise, and maybe even a Hedychium Disney. Better get there early if you want to beat me to them.