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Plant Profiles

Tropical ginger shows off its colorful rhizomes

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Tropical gingers are colorful when in bloom in late Summer and Fall.  Some of them are also colorful when you divide and repot them in February.  In the Winter, I take color wherever I can find it—even if that means inches underground. 

 

I grow mine in big nursery pots.  I bring the plants into shelter just before frost gets them.  They sit in less-important corners of an always crowded greenhouse, without water or much sun.  It's a good rest, drying out week by week, gradually letting go of last year's canes.

 

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The canes that were able to flower last season are the first to go dormant, and get cut off in January.  By late Winter, only younger canes around the perimeter are still standing.  They didn't have time to flower last year, and it's not worth it to try to carry them through the Winter to flower this year, either.  That would mean keeping the pots in more sun through the Winter, and other plants in the greenhouse need that sun more. 

 

Besides, the more important function of these juvenile canes is to mark how far the clump has grown outward.  This clump is bumping into the edges of the pot all around.

 

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The roots of gingers are thick and strong:  This cane's rhizome has warped the entire pot outward, away from the original rootball.  If I kept these "headstrong" canes growing, their rhizomes would soon split right through the pot. 

 

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Instead, I rework the clump, repotting it in the same pot.  Here's how:

 

First, all the canes are cut to the soil level.

 

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Then it's easy to tip the pot over, and slide the rootball out.  Gingers have thick roots and thicker canes.  See how pushing the pot outward has also caused the rhizome to become flattened.

 

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Using a soil knife, I slice off the bottom half of the soil and root mass.

 

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This bottom portion is set right back in the pot.  The ginger roots that it contains will break down and provide nutrition for the roots of the reworked rhizomes that you'll be replanting in the top portion of the pot.

 

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Next, I go over the top portion of the soil and rhizome mass, loosening the dry soil and exposing the about-to-grow tips of the rhizomes.  Ginger rhizomes are tough and tolerant; soon I'm slicing and even stabbing away with the soil knife, separating the liveliest portions of the rhizome from the older portions at the center of the mass.

 

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Setting aside four or five of these about-to-sprout perimeter portions, I put all the older portions of rhizomes directly on top of the bottom plug of soil and roots that I had put back in the pot.  If they sprout and contribute to the Summer show, great; if they don't, they'll rot and help nourish the newer growth of the perimeter rhizomes.

 

These older portions are covered with compost and soil; the newer rhizomes are layered on top of them.  Don't position them with their new tips facing outward, as they'd grown over the last season: They'd just bump into the sides of the pot.  Instead orient the tips nose-to-tail with their neighbors.  I think of a pack of dogs sniffing one another, but you might prefer to bring to mind a wagon train circled for the evening.

 

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I fill the pot to the brim with compost, finishing with a "frosting" layer of potting soil, which will knit together better than the compost, and keep it from washing out of the pot as you water.

 

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I water once, and set the container in sun and warmth to let new canes emerge.  Then the new colony receives regular watering.

 

By the time the weather is warm enough to set the pot outside, the new shoots could be two feet tall.  Depending on the cultivar, the new crop of flowers at their tips should appear two, three, or four months later.  The Summer and Fall garden will be more fragrant and more floral than ever.

 

 

Here's how to grow this swell-when-it-swelters tropical perennial:


Latin Name

Hedychium 'Daniel Weeks'

Common Name

'Daniel Weeks' tropical ginger

Family

Zingiberaceae, the Ginger family.

What kind of plant is it?

Rhizomatous flowering perennial.

Hardiness

The warm end of Zone 7, up to 10.

Habit

Upright bamboo-like canes, spreading (where hardy in-ground) from thick but shallow iris-like rhizomes to form a substantial colony.  Doesn't run like bamboo, but the colony definitely increases.  There are no strictly-clumping tropicals gingers, and in truly mild climates gingers can eventually take up a lot of real estate if you don't control them. 

Rate of Growth

Fast if happy.

Size in ten years

Taller and faster in warmer climate zones.  A colony six feet or more across and four to six feet tall.

Texture

The foliage and the canes are both corn-like, for a look that's either vegetable or tropical depending on your own context.  The large "cobs" of colorful fragrant orchid-like flowers that terminate each cane, though, definitely proclaim "fabulous tropics." 

Grown for

its flowers.  If the growing season is long enough, each and every cane eventually terminates in a pine-conish—or, rather, corn-cobish—bud cluster that matures to an extraordinary vertical cluster of orchid-like flowers the color of the most high-fat orange ice-cream, each with an orange center.  The long orange stamens give the whole cluster a further drama of gaudy Mardi Gras eyelashes.  The evening fragrance, wafting through the heavy still air of a sweltering August, is yet another pleasure.  

 

its hot-weather flowering season.  For me, from early August into September depending on how many canes I've been able to coax.  In-ground in warmer climates there will be many more canes, and the blooming season extends right through Fall.  Sigh.

Flowering season

Summer and (with large colonies) Fall, starting, for me, in August.  Even earlier in milder climates where the colony has been able to get that much more of a start in Spring.

Culture

Dappled sun, heat, rich soil, and plenty of moisture.  Gingers are native to the "wet" tropics—think jungles of Borneo—rather than the dry tropics of, say, many Caribbean Islands.  I found that even here in Rhode Island the sun is too strong for sustained exposure. 

How to handle it

In-ground, gingers can scarcely have too rich or, in the growing season, too moist a soil.  (That said, they aren't bog plants, let alone aquatics.)  But as usual, good Winter drainage helps hardiness at the lower end of their range.  The rhizomes don't tolerate much frost but as long as you mulch heavily in Zones 7 and 8, and lightly even in Zone 9, they should be safe.  You can also dig up clumps after the first Fall frost, storing them dormant and frost-free, and then replanting in Spring.  But ginger clumps can be as big as manual typewriters, and much heavier, so this isn't the tactic if you don't have a strong back.

 

I've gotten the best results by growing my gingers in large containers year-round.  If nothing else, I'm spared the onerous Fall digging.  I keep them in the greenhouse over the Winter, without watering through the Fall until they are divided and repotted in late Winter.  The clumps handle dormant-storage (like you'd do for cannas and dahlias) just fine, too—but, in my experience, need to be started back into early-Spring growth in the greenhouse if they're to have a hope of blooming before that first Fall frost. 

 

Each cane blooms only once; cut them off right to the ground when they begin to fade.  Be careful of new canes that might also be emerging:  Canes bloom only at the very tip so if you damage it, it's best to cut off the entire cane and resolve to be more careful from now on.

 

In less-than-tropical climates, where the canes are killed back by frost but the rhizomes are still hardy by virtue of your mulching or just because it's so darn mild, let the old canes last until early Spring, cutting them off only when the new canes start.  In the real tropics, you can cut them off any time at all, lucky you.

 

Divide older colonies in early Spring (again, minding the fragile new canes), replanting the vigorous outer portions and tossing the sparser, woodier, center portions.  In this regard, you handle tropical gingers like you handle Siberian iris.   

 

Wherever you grow tropical gingers, site them either under high shade day-long, or where they get shade from mid-day sun.   

Downsides

Hedychium can be challenging to bring into bloom if your Summer is—from a ginger's perspective—short or cool, which can be New England (short) as well as the Pacific Northwest (cool).  For us, then, the effortless bounty that gingers bring to gardens in its more-favored sweltering and long-season locales can be (trust me) exasperating.  On the other hand, I say, having gingers run riot from June to Thanksgiving is at least some solace when you need to live in someplace truly steamy like, say, Biloxi.

Variants

Hedychium flowers are almost as diverse in color as roses, from white, pink, or yellow into deepest orange-red.  (For flowers in pure red to burgundy-black, look to the even more extragantly-sized and -flowered Hedychium relatives, the Heliconias.)  

 

Individual flowers can be larger or smaller, and their vertical clusters longer or shorter.  Some species and cultivars come into bloom much earlier than others; 'Tara' is particularly helpful in this regard when you're trying to grow any hedychium in a short-season, cool-Summer locale; I've had it in bloom in July, even when starting it from a dormant clump instead of carrying the pot over the Winter in leaf in the greenhouse.

 

Overall plant heights vary from three or four feet to three times that, so depending on your choices, Hedychium species and cultivars can function like colorful perennials as well as giant horticultural screens.

 

Hedychium foliage was boring until the softly-variegated 'Dr. Moi' came along; now it's downright jivy with 'Vanilla Ice', which is 'Dr. Moi' after he took something he shouldn't.  The foliage of 'Vanilla Ice' is so dramatically lined and sectored in white that the flowers—apricot with a typical gardenia-like fragrance—are still, nonetheless, only secondary.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By division in late Winter or Spring.  The pure species come true from seed. 

Native habitat

Hedychium species are native to tropical Asia; 'Daniel Weeks' was hybridized in Gainesville, Florida.

 
 
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