The number of ginger plant species available for avid collectors (if you aren’t one yet, you may be at risk of becoming one) is staggering. And why would you want to stop at a few plants? There is so much variation between species: where one flower looks like an otherworldly pinecone, another resembles a mutant orchid, and yet another looks like a tropical insect dreamed up by a cartoonist.
Understanding Ginger Nomenclature
The flowering ginger family, Zingiberaceae, is diverse, including some 47 genera and more than a thousand species. Some of the more common genus names you are likely to see in the nursery trade include Alpinia, Costus, Hedychium, and Zingiber (which includes the edible culinary ginger).
Flowering ginger plants aren’t known by any other common names, although some individual species bear such uninteresting names as “red ginger” or “yellow ginger.” Collectors should choose plants based on the Latin name rather than any common name to avoid mislabeled plants and muddled taxonomy issues. Gardeners just looking for an attractive container plant can look for a plant in bloom that they admire, as all tropical gingers thrive under similar growing conditions.
Get to Know Ginger
Ginger plants spread and emerge from rhizomes, the thick fleshy root-like structures you are accustomed to seeing in the market for seasoning food. The leaves are usually lance-shaped or oblong, deep green, and glossy. Flowers vary greatly from one genus to another and may be borne throughout the growing season in tropical climates.
Many of the flowering gingers sold as garden plants reach an average height between four and five feet tall. Gardeners should consult the care tag of the individual species to choose a proper location or container size.
Ginger is an adaptable tropical plant and grows throughout much of Southeast Asia. Although some people associate flowering gingers with the state of Hawaii, many of the species were introduced to the island as ornamentals, and some, like the red button ginger, are considered invasive plants.
Tropical ginger plants crave the high humidity and moist, rich soil of their native habitat. If flowering ginger plants get too dry, they will cease to flower, and may even become dormant. As a tropical plant, ginger plants prefer temperatures above 50 degrees. Most ginger plants thrive in filtered light, as they would receive growing in a rainforest. Ginger plants growing in full sun may experience browning on foliage margins.
Can you grow ginger from rhizomes you buy at the supermarket? It's possible, but may not be worth the effort if you desire an ornamental plant with flowers. Some ginger rhizomes sold for food use may be treated with a growth retardant to prohibit sprouting. If you come across a plump, fresh rhizome that looks alive, you can attempt to sprout it in a container in a warm place. If the rhizomes are indeed viable, you may see sprouts within two weeks. However, plants grown from rhizomes may take up to two years to flower, and blooms are not as showy as those from most ornamental species in the trade.
Ginger in the Garden
Plant flowering gingers with other large tropical plants like cannas or elephant ears to create a sultry statement. Although flowering gingers are too large to grow as houseplants, you can keep them in your greenhouse or conservatory. Gardeners can still enjoy ginger blooms indoors as cut flowers, where they may grace your vase for as long as three weeks.
Ginger plants are heavy feeders and will benefit from a biweekly shovelful of manure when the summer heats up. Otherwise, you can apply a complete flower fertilizer every other month. If you decide to grow your ginger as a container plant, choose a large container, with a diameter of at least 24 inches. Larger containers also retain moisture for longer periods. Choose a heavy flowerpot made of concrete or porcelain, as the rhizomes may cause plastic or other thin-walled plants to split as the plant grows.
After first frost, remove withered foliage and allow the rhizomes to dry out in a protected location. Store the dormant rhizomes in sawdust or sphagnum moss as you would other tropical bulbs like gladioli or dahlias.
Top Ginger Varieties
- Crepe Ginger, Costus speciosus: Maroon bracts bear white flowers whose petals resemble crinkled tissue paper; may tolerate light frosts
- Kahili Ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum: Fragrant yellow flowers with prominent orange stamens
- Pineapple Ginger, Tapeinochilos ananassae: As the name suggests, flowers resemble a (red) pineapple. A good candidate for the shade garden.
- Red Button Ginger: Easy ginger for beginners, but those in tropical areas should keep it in a container to prevent its invasive tendencies.
- Torch Ginger, Etlingera elatior: Shiny red flowers resemble pine cones; grows well in full sun
- White Ginger, Hedychium coronarium: Fragrant orchid-like flowers grow throughout the year; may spread aggressively in the landscape in frost-free areas