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Plant Profiles

Red Butterfly Ginger

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Tropical gingers are colorful when in bloom in late Summer and Fall. Some reveal colorful rhizomes when you divide and repot them in February. The canes of red butterfly ginger put on not one, but three additional shows after Fall weather arrives. Purple-backed leaves and raspberry-colored sheaths are just the beginning.

 

Happily for those of us who work to keep friendly colors together and discordant ones apart, the canes' rhubarby hue arrives only after the weather has cooled enough that the canes have ceased developing this ginger's signature red-orange flowers. The foliage is green on top, and it separates the bright and pink-friendly lower section of the cane from the equally-bright but orange-friendly flowers that can top it. There are few choices of companion plants that could actively engage with both of these palettes. (See "Plant Partners" for suggestions.)

 

Sources comment on the purple underside of the leaves of this "red" ginger. It is only visible if you tip the colony on its side, or know to turn a leaf over to make its underside visible, temporarily, from above. Unless you grow Hedychium greenii atop a high wall or pedestal, the leaves' colorful reverse isn't usually part of its display.

 

The startling bright bases of the canes, though, are quite showy as long as there's opportunity to see the clump from the side.  See "Plant partners" and "Where to use it" for tactics to enhance their display.

 

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The newest of the canes have the brightest cool-weather coloring, nearly that of raspberry Kool-Aid.

 

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As a cane ages, the sheath around its base dries out, exchanging its fluorescent shade for tan.

 

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You might consider cutting these faded older canes out—as long as you're also aware that canes that were able to flower are, at the same time, putting on the third unique show of this tropical ginger: Each develops a plantlet at the base of the matured flower cluster. In the picture below, the plantlet is at the left, and the flower stucture at the right.

 

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Canes that were not able to flower in the current season seem determined to remain active through the Winter, at least when overwintering in a frost-free environment, in hopes of flowering the next.

 

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In my experience, the canes of other tropical gingers—those that had flowered as well as those that hadn't yet—all turn brown and can be cut off.

 

Here's how to grow this quirky tropical ginger:

 

Latin Name

Hedychium greenii

Common Name

Red butterfly 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.  Hedychium rhizomes don't run like those of bamboo, but the colony definitely increases.  There are no strictly-clumping tropical 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 three or four feet or more across and three 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 small clusters 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 terminates in a corn-cobbish bud cluster that matures to an extraordinary cluster of reddish-orange orchid-like flowers. The flowers' long orange stamens give the whole cluster the further drama of gaudy Mardi Gras eyelashes. The evening fragrance, wafting through the heavy still air of a sweltering August, is yet another pleasure. Uniquely for a Hedychium, after the flower cluster matures, a large plantlet develops at the base of it.

 

its foliage.  Singular among tropical gingers—but not that uncommon among plants in general—is the purple underside of the leaves, contrasting sharply with their green topside. 

 

its stems.  The cane-like stems are a dull purple, like the undersides of the leaves. In cooler weather, the color of the stems ripens to a bright rhubarb-raspberry. Canes are not immortal, and eventually the old ones relinquish their bright coloring for a tired tan. See "Quirks and special cases" for grooming tips.

 

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.

Color combinations

Hedychium greenii gives contradictory guidance. The orange-red flowers welcome other oranges and reds, and are grateful for a cool-down of burgundy or eggplant. For them, white and even yellow seem irrelevant, while blue, pink, and rose would be a headache.

 

The raspberry-rhubarb stems and the purple backs of the leaves, however, are trying to communicate with just the world of blue, pink, and rose that the flowers would eschew. They, too, are comfortable with burgundy or eggplant, and are also uninterested in white and yellow.

 

See "Plant partners" for ways out of this quandary.

Partner plants

The vermilion flowers are produced during the hot months, whereas the rhubarb-colored canes don't seem to color as vividly until cool weather has arrived. And because the flowers are always at the tips of the canes, whereas the pink-friendly portion of the canes is always at the bottoms, the two are separated by the dense goes-with-anything green foliage. It would be great to have partner plants that relate to the flowers as well as the canes, even though their two colorings are incompatible.

 

There are several ways to finesse this challenge. You could grow this ginger in a container and keeping it in a hot-palette area while it's flowering and, then, when flowering ceases in early Fall, move it to a pastel-palette area. Or you could keep the ginger in the same location, and change the neighbors by growing them all in pots.

 

Or you could grow Hedychium greenii amid neighbors of neutral green.

 

Or you could select neighbors with the one palette that is like a champion diplomat, able to converse cordially with absolutely everyone: Burgundy and eggplant.

 

Whatever the neighbors' coloring, let scale and texture affect your choices, as well. The erect habit and cornstalk-like growth of all forms of Hedychium suggest partners with rounded or ferny foliage, and a mounding or prostrate habit at the front of the ginger clumps, and a mounding or architectural habit at the back of them. There's also the matter of exposure: Hedychiums are plants for part shade, not full sun.  Lastly, the extraordinary orchid-like display of the Hedychium flowers puts the blooms of almost any other plant to shame. Out of consideration, combine this ginger only with plants whose trump card is form and foliage.

 

Ferny and orange-friendly; can grow in containers or in the ground: Dryopteris erythrosora, in its 'Brilliance' cultivar, whose striking orange new fronds continue to emerge all season long.

 

Ferny and pink-friendly, best growing in-ground: Athyrium niponicum var. pictum 'Silver Falls'.

 

Ferny and selling burgundy, and for growing in-ground: Actea simplex 'Brunette'. With luck, this very hardy perennial's late-season spikes of white flowers will arrive after the Hedychium flowers are through.

 

Mounding and deep burgundy, best growing in-ground: Heuchera 'Obsidian'; you'll need to clip off the spikes of small white flowers, whose mid-Summer season may overlap with the start of blooming of Hedychium greenii.

 

Mounding and burgundy, in a container except in subtropics: Philodendron 'Black Cardinal'.

 

Mounding, friendly to burgundy as well as orange, and so finely grassy its texture is fernlike: Carex buchananii. Grow in-ground in Zone 7 and warmer, and in a container in Zone 6 and colder.

 

Mounding and orange-friendly; large enough for in-ground background:  Rhododendron bureavii. The white or pink flowers emerge as well as depart in Spring, and are followed by new stems and foliage that are heavily surfaced in fuzz (known as indumentum when it's on the bottoms of the leaves, and tomentum when it's on the tops) that matures to a startling (in a fabulous way) copper. Stunning. 

 

Background, in-ground, and orange-friendly: Pyracantha 'Mohave'. This shrub's white flowers are showy only in Spring; the vermilion berries are showy by September, which is usually peak season for all forms of Hedychium. Site Hedychium greenii to the north or east, so that the Pyracantha provides the shade the ginger needs. 

 

Prostrate groundcover, of neutral coloring, for the front of a clump of Hedychium greenii: Lysimachia nummularia, for once in the straight species, not the gold-foliaged cultivar 'Aurea'.

 

Judging by the paucity of pink-friendly partners, my recommendation would seem to be for neutral and orange-friendly neighbors. Rhododendron bureavii is at the top of my 2013 wish-list. I'll give it an orange-friendly welcome with respectfully-adjacent pots of Hedychium greenii, Carex buchananii, and Dryopteris 'Brilliance'. OK, with the Philodendron 'Black Cardinal', too. Some other season, I'll set a container of the ginger elsewhere in the garden, where there will be a column of Pyracantha 'Mohave'. First I need to plant the shrub, and then grow it into a column. I'm on it.

Where to use it in your garden

Perched as they are at the tips of tall canes, the flowers of Hedychium can be seen even from a distance, or when the plants are fronted by deep beds full of nearly-as-tall partners. The purple-backed leaves of Hedychium greenii are probably of interest only to hedychia-holics, but the rhubarb-colored canes are showy enough to warrant siting that showcases them. Grow in-ground at the front of beds, or with very low groundcovers in front, or in containers that you can elevate by placing them atop a wall or a pedestal. See "Partner plants," above.

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, direct sun is too strong for sustained exposure. Wherever you grow tropical gingers, site them either under high shade day-long, or where they get shade from mid-day and afternoon sun. 

How to handle it

In-ground, gingers can scarcely have soil that is too rich or, in the growing season, too moist. (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.

 

Each cane blooms only once. Unless you want to watch the development of the plantlet at the tip of a post-flowered cane, or need the plantlets to increase your holding of H. greenii, cut a cane right to the ground when its flowers begin to fade. Be careful of new canes that might also be emerging: Canes bloom only at the very tip so if you damage one, it's best to cut off the entire cane and resolve to be more careful from now on.

 

When growing Hedychium in-ground 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, stop culling old canes a month or so before frost is expected. If you cut them off in Fall or Winter, you might provide better access for icy water into the heart of the clump. Instead, leave the canes in place over the Winter, cutting them off only when the new canes start in Spring. In the real tropics, you can cut old canes off any time at all, lucky you.

 

Divide colonies in late Winter or 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. Older in-ground colonies can become open at the center, so it's better to divide and reset them every couple of years. If you wait much longer, there's that much more digging to do and that many more older internal sections to deal with. Either way, you can chop up older sections and work them back into the soil of the same planting area, making Hedychium colonies satisfyingly self-composting.

Hot to handle it: Another option—or two!

You can 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. This seems especially helpful with Hedychium greenii, which, at least in my experience, keeps a broader growth cycle than is typical for tropical gingers. Usually, ginger canes of a given clump all flower the same season, and then fade and die; in cool or dark conditions that make overwintering easy, the clump can then be stored without watering until it is divided and repotted in late Winter. 

 

Because canes of Hedychium greenii develop a plantlet after flowering is completed, they seem to hang on much longer than usual. Canes that didn't flower their first season show no sign of fading, either. Hedychium greenii may well be the exceptional ginger that will remain green and growing in a cool greenhouse. If you want to overwinter the clump in full dormancy—with all of last season's canes died to the ground, that is—you'll need to be more forceful in your encouragement. Withhold water entirely and, just for one night, try to site the pot so that the canes experience frost that is light enough to scare them into dormancy, but not so intense or long-lasting that the shallow rhizomes themselves are at risk of freezing.

 

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.

Quirks and special cases

While the plantlets that emerge at the base of old flower clusters are unusual, the canes that they tip will eventually lose their pretty rhubarb color. Letting very old canes—which are tan, not rhubarb—mix in with the bright young ones is democratic and inclusive, but is achieved at the expense of a more exciting uniformity of raspberry-hued canes that results from clipping their elders away. You can still feel good about those senior canes: Cut their plantlets free and pot them up for friends. 

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 extravagantly-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 jivey 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—or from a friend who is already growing it: Ask for a plantlet.

Propagation

By division in late Winter or Spring, and by potting-up the plantlet that forms at the tip of each cane that has finished flowering. Hedychium greenii is sterile, so there aren't seeds to propagate.

Native habitat

Hedychium species are native to tropical Asia.

 
 
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