Ornamental gingers – we’ve admired them whilst on holiday in tropical countries, or seen them curated in the glasshouses of botanical gardens, but how many of us have considered growing them in our own gardens? Surely gingers need more heat and sunlight than the British climate can offer? Aren’t they going to be hopelessly needy or plagued by pests and diseases? Well, I have news for you, gingers are easy to grow, and many require a lot less care and attention than you imagine.
If you don’t already grow ornamental gingers in your garden I hope that by the end of this post you’ll feel compelled to give them a try. Most gingers are easy-going, exotic-looking plants that return a lot of bang for your buck. Their demands can be summarised as regular watering and feeding, dappled shade and some winter protection; generally a deep mulch will suffice. Undisturbed in the ground they will develop into lush thickets of leafy stems, topped by colourful, highly scented flowers in late summer and autumn. Gingers are team players, working with other plants in many situations; at the back of a herbaceous border, in a large pot in a courtyard garden, as the centrepiece for summer bedding or as part of a jungly planting scheme. Five years ago I started with a single variety, Hedychium ‘Stephen’, purchased from Hardy Exotics in Cornwall. That small plant has now expanded into eight clumps, each the size of a dustbin lid. Now I have fourteen varieties of ginger and I’m adding to them all the time. I can honestly say that gingers are the amongst easiest and most rewarding plants I grow: pest free, rarely requiring staking, always a talking point and, best of all, deliciously scented like no other plant I know.
The ornamental ‘butterfly’ gingers, in latin Hedychium (heh-DIK-ee-um), belong to the Zingiberaceae family which also includes Zingiber officinale, the culinary ginger. They’re rhizomatous plants, growing from subterranean stems that look very similar to the ginger ‘root’ you’d buy in a supermarket. Most gingers grow 1-2m tall, producing long, plain green leaves on thick stems. They are very hard to tell apart from their foliage, although ‘Dr Moy’ and ‘Verity’ are variegated, which is a fairly unusual trait. Ginger flowers are much more diverse, varying in size, arrangement and colour. Some gingers produce a tall, candle-like inflorescence, whilst others produce a short cluster of bloom like a shaving brush. Ornamental gingers have been extensively hybridised, resulting in colours from white through yellow, apricot, orange, pink and red.
Hedychiums come from originally from the world’s tropical and semi tropical zones. Those most suited to UK gardens grow at a high altitude and can therefore tolerate lower temperatures at night and over winter. Although the Victorians considered gingers to be tender, we are now discovering that many are not so delicate as once imagined, hailing as they do from Himalayan forests. Here lie all the clues to successful cultivation:
1) Gingers like to be moist during the growing season. Growing on the floor of mountain forests they are used to ample summer rainfall and rich soil. During the winter the weather is drier and the rhizomes are protected from the cold by a thick layer of leaf litter.
2) Gingers don’t appreciate hot, midday sun – in the forest the tree canopy provides dappled shade. Gingers enjoy sun at the beginning and end of the day, but not being exposed to the midday sun. In too much sun the leaves will roll up to prevent water loss through transpiration, and eventually they will develop dry, papery patches where they have, effectively, burned.
3) Gingers enjoy a sheltered position – again, being woodlanders gingers grow best in sheltered, humid conditions. Courtyards, walled gardens and spots at the base of a wall or hedge, provided they are not too dry, are ideal for them. Gingers will take some wind, but if excessive the leaves will roll, burn and occasionally become ripped and tatty.
4) Gingers like light – The days further south in the northern hemisphere are more consistent in length and are filled with longer hours of sunlight. Outdoors during a poor British summer, some gingers may struggle to gather enough steam to produce flowers before winter arrives. Some, but not all, will die down in the winter, giving them only 6-7 months to grow and flower. Warm weather, a sheltered spot and maturity will help bring flowering forward.
Ornamental Gingers through the Year
- Buy rhizomes from reputable suppliers in April, or plants at any time during the growing season. I’ve recommended sources which I have used personally below. I’ve found gingers started from dry rhizomes much slower to establish than those purchased as growing plants.
- Gingers can be grown in the ground or in pots. I find those grown in pots flower earlier than those in the ground, probably because they can be started into growth a little earlier in the spring, by keeping them in a warm, sheltered spot or an unheated greenhouse. (I wonder if black plastic pots absorb heat and promote an earlier growth too.) Gingers are greedy feeders, so use John Innes No.3 in pots, and add a slow release fertiliser to the surface after 6-8 weeks. If growing in the ground, add lots of rich, well-rotted organic matter from your compost bin to mimic the woodsy conditions gingers enjoy in their natural habitat. Good compost will also retain moisture. In pots I plant rhizomes so that their tops are exposed above the surface of the compost / grit. In the ground you can plant a little deeper, but the rhizomes will tend to haul themselves up over time. If growing in pots or containers, be prepared to go up a size or two each year. Ginger rhizomes are powerful and willful quickly distorting the sides of black plastic pots; they tend to decide which direction they are growing in and then grow! More often than not I am forced to cut my gingers out of their straining containers in order to divide or repot them. I would not recommend terracotta for this reason as it will likely shatter. You can cheat in the garden by plunging potted plants into a border, but you’ll need to be prepared to feed and water your plants frequently as their roots will not be able to venture far for sustenance.
- As soon as thick, red, pointed shoots start to emerge from the rhizomes – which can happen any time from late April to June – then you should commence watering, unless your site is very damp naturally. Gingers will flourish close to a pond or on the banks of a stream, as at Trengwainton in Cornwall. I grow 90% of my gingers in pots and stand these in a sheltered, shady passageway until they are about 3ft tall and ready to be moved into their final positions for summer.
- Ginger rhizomes are best divided in early summer when they are in full growth, simply by slicing them up. I use a sharp bread knife. Doing it at this time allows you to see where the new stems are and the exposed cuts will heal quickly. However, take care to avoid breaking any of the shoots in the process and don’t leave this job too late in the season. Your gardening friends will cheerfully accept any excess plants as gifts, although I find it very hard to part with them.
- Once growing, all gingers need are food, water, dappled shade and shelter. In warm weather they grow fast, almost in front of your eyes. I apply dilute tomato food weekly to supplement a more balanced slow-release fertiliser. Pests and diseases are mercifully few. I’ve occasionally seen a snail or a cabbage white take an interest in the foliage, but damage has been minimal. Healthy plants shrug off all but the most persistent attackers. High winds and scorching sun will be your greatest enemy, so provide shelter from those.
- Some gingers have the habit of throwing out stems at a slight angle, I suppose to help them search for light and spread their leaves to maximise photosynthesis. This arching habit becomes more pronounced in shadier spots. If you are fussy about this, you should stake your plants, although I feel this detracts from their natural grace and elegance. Hedychium ‘Tara’ and Hedychium gardnerianum are stronger and more upright varieties in my garden. In sun they will grow bolt upright to reduce the amount of light reaching their foliage. In the UK, most gingers will grow no more than 6″ in height outdoors, suiting most to a position at the back of the border.
- Following a warm spring, gingers might flower as early as late June, but most will bide their time until August, September or October. Try not to be too impatient, especially if your plants are young. Once flowering has begun each individual spike or cluster might flower for a week or so and, if scented, will emit a heavy, luxurious perfume at night. Some gingers will produce several flushes of flowers from the same spike over a period of days. Moths like to visit, especially those with an elongated proboscis, such as the Convolvulus Hawk Moth (Agrius convolvuli). I have not tried gingers as cut flowers – I think they look better in the garden – but I don’t imagine they would last long in a vase.
- Once spent, there is no particular need to remove the flower spikes but this is when I stop feeding regularly. The stems on which they are held will naturally begin to decline over a period of weeks and fleshy fruits may start to appear, turning red in the late autumn. I have not attempted growing gingers from seed, but this is something I’d like to learn more about. As the first frosts approach, the foliage will start to turn yellow. At this point any gingers you want to keep growing actively overwinter should be moved into a cool greenhouse or conservatory. Those from warmer countries do not die down naturally and must be kept somewhere warm and light until spring.
- As the first frosts approach, the foliage of most gingers will start to turn yellow. The yellowing occurs as the plants start to pull the plant’s energy back down into the rhizome. Each dying stem will then separate quite freely from the rhizome, snapping cleanly off in a very satisfying manner: take a deep breath and fill your lungs with the fresh, gingery scent. Unflowered stems may stay green and healthy outdoors all through winter; this is certainly the case for me. Only once, in early 2018, has the temperature dropped low enough to damage any remaining top growth. No harm was done to the rhizomes.
- If your gingers are in pots then they can be put somewhere dark and frost-free until April. A garage, shed or cellar is fine. The rhizomes do not require any light and must not be watered. Some residual moisture in the compost is fine, but no more should be added. I do absolutely nothing to my gingers for the whole winter period, apart from checking once to ensure there’s no decay. I have yet to find any. Being greedy and vigorous, it is highly likely that the rhizomes will need repotting in a larger pot and in fresh compost every year. If simply repotting rather than dividing, I do this in April before growth begins, but do not water the plants until shoots appear.
- In the open ground, gingers should be given a thick mulch of leaves or bark or spent compost in November. This level of protection should be completely adequate for most varieties. If you are concerned or risk averse, dig up your rhizomes and pot them in clean, dry compost for the winter. However be aware that gingers don’t relish disturbance so are better left in situ if possible. They are great companions for spring bulbs as they start into growth so late in the year.
In comparison to most other plants I grow at The Watch House, hardy or tender, gingers are a breeze. They come up, do their thing and go away again. I have never killed one, nor has a pest or disease. They are always marvelled at when I open my garden, as if I have performed some small miracle. In fact I have done very little, apart from feed and water. If I had one criticism it would be that ginger flowers don’t last long. Growing several varieties and allowing them to make big clumps overcomes that issue by extending the flowering season and the number of flower spikes. The foliage alone is wonderful, providing a lush backdrop to other plants.
There are few sights as breathtaking as a clump of gingers in full bloom, and when you add the exquisite perfume on top, there’s little to rival their exotic allure. It’s not too late to buy plants this year – if they are a decent size you may even get flowers out of them – and in November you can sling them in the shed and forget about them until spring. Easier to grow than dahlias or lilies, and more remarkable than either, ornamental gingers are a must for every garden. TFG.
Gingers in My Garden
- Hedychium ‘Anne Bishop’
- Hedychium coccineum ‘Tara’
- Hedychium coronarium ‘Gold Spot’
- Hedychium densiflorum ‘Sorung’
- Hedychium densiflorum ‘Stephen’
- Hedychium ‘Dr Moy’
- Hedychium gardnerianum
- Hedychium greenii
- Hedychium ‘Helen Dillon’
- Hedychium ‘Luna Moth’
- Hedychium maximum
- Hedychium ‘Pradhan’
- Hedychium ‘Verity’
- Hedychium yunannense
recommended sources of ginger plants
- Jungle Seeds – the source of over half my gingers. Sadly it seems they may cease offering ginger plants at the end of 2018, so get in there quick for top-notch plants.
- Hardy Exotics – a plantsman’s paradise in West Cornwall. My first ginger plants came from here and I still love to visit.
- Urban Jungle – a great selection of gingers available via mail order.
- Springwood Nursery – one of the most extensive collections in the UK cultivated by a very experienced grower.
The plants are quite hungry feeders and require a good feed and plenty of water when in full growth. If allowing dying back for the winter then should not be fed after the end of August. They must not be waterlogged over winter as this can be fatal for them, opposed to when in full growth the can almost be aquatic.
The plants will start to grow in the spring when the average soil temperature gets above ten degrees centigrade. So I plant them with spring bulbs to give me any early flush of colour and as they fade the gingers start to grow through. The gingers will continue growth until the first frosts, and then they start to pull the energy back to the rhizome. The stem will then separate quite freely when ready and will literally ‘pop off’. If in a pot then it can be put in the garden shed for the winter or if you wish to keep them going, bring into the conservatory. Do not lift the rhizome like you do to Cannas as they take at least a year to ‘settle in’ and so if you lift it is difficult for them to flower in the following year.
The ginger rhizome is best divided in the early summer when they are in full growth, simply by slicing it up. Doing it at this time, allows you to see where the new stems are and the exposed sliced area will heal quite quickly. Late slicing as the plant slows, delays healing and can allow rots to set in.