Hedychium - Ornamental Gingers
Dan Cooper, of Dan Cooper Garden, with a comprehensive guide on selecting and growing the best ornamental gingers. - 02 May 2023
Ornamental gingers – we’ve all admired them whilst on holiday abroad or seen them curated in glasshouses, but have you considered growing them in your garden? Many people imagine they need more heat and sunlight than the British climate can offer, and some do, but most are no more demanding than a dahlia or a canna.
Gingers are easy-going, exotic-looking plants that flower in late summer and autumn. They require regular watering and feeding, dappled shade, and winter protection; a deep mulch will suffice. Undisturbed in the ground, they develop into lush thickets of leafy stems, topped by colourful flowers. Gingers are good team players, working with other plants in many situations; at the back of a herbaceous border, in a large pot, or as the centrepiece for summer bedding.
Ten years ago, I started with a single variety, Hedychium ‘Stephen’. That small plant has now expanded into eight clumps, each the size of a tractor wheel. Now I grow a dozen varieties, and I’m always searching for new ones, hence joining in with Rare Plant Fairs! Gingers are among the easiest and most rewarding plants I grow. They are pest-free, rarely require staking and are always a talking point. Best of all, the flowers are scented like no other.
Ornamental ‘butterfly’ gingers, in latin Hedychium (heh-DIK-ee-um), belong to the Zingiberaceae family, including 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 hard to tell apart from their foliage, although H. ‘Dr Moy’ and H. ‘Verity’ are variegated, which is relatively unusual. Ginger flowers are much more diverse, varying in size, arrangement and colour. Some species produce a tall, candle-like inflorescence (e.g. H. gardnerianum), while others produce a short bloom cluster like a shaving brush (e.g. H. yunnanense). Ornamental gingers have been extensively hybridised, resulting in colours from white through yellow, apricot, orange, pink and red.
Hedychiums come from the world’s tropical and semi-tropical zones. Those most suited to UK gardens grow at a high altitude and tolerate lower temperatures at night and over winter. Tropical species need the warmth and shelter of a greenhouse or conservatory from late autumn to late spring to keep them alive and produce flowers.
Gingers like to be moist during the growing season and dry over winter. Being forest dwellers, they don’t appreciate hot, midday sun - bright conditions at the beginning and end of the day are fine, but in too much sun, the leaves will roll up to prevent water loss through transpiration. They flourish 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. During a poor British summer, some gingers may struggle to gather enough steam to produce flowers before winter. Some, but not all, will die down, giving them only 6-7 months to flower. Warm weather, a sheltered spot and maturity will improve your chances.
Hedychium 'Helen Dillon'
Here are my top tips for successful cultivation:
- Buy rhizomes from reputable suppliers in April or plants anytime during the growing season. I’ve found gingers started from dry rhizomes are much slower to establish than those purchased as growing plants.
- Gingers can be grown in the ground or pots - those grown in pots flower earlier, probably because they can be started into growth a little sooner.
- 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 open 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, plant rhizomes so that their tops are exposed. You can plant a little deeper, in the ground but the rhizomes will tend to haul themselves to the surface over time.
- When growing in containers, be prepared to move up a size or two each year. Ginger rhizomes are powerful, quickly distorting the sides of black plastic pots. More often than not I am forced to cut my gingers out of their containers 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 must be prepared to feed and water frequently.
- As soon as thick, red, pointed shoots emerge from the rhizomes – which can happen from late April to June – you should commence watering unless your site is naturally damp. Gingers will flourish close to a pond or on the banks of a stream
- Ginger rhizomes are best divided in early summer simply by slicing them up. Use a sharp bread knife, or pruning saw. Doing it when they are in full growth allows you to see where the new stems are, and the exposed cuts will heal quickly. However, take care to avoid breaking any shoots in the process.
- Following a warm spring, gingers might flower as soon as late June, but most will bide their time until August, September or October. Once flowering has begun, each spike or cluster might flower for a week or so and, if scented, 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).
- Once spent, there is no need to deadhead. The flower stems will naturally decline and fleshy fruits may start to appear, turning red in late autumn.
- As the first frosts approach, the foliage will start to turn an attractive shade of yellow. At this point, any gingers you want to keep growing actively over winter should be moved into a cool greenhouse or conservatory.
- As winter approaches, each dying stem will separate freely from the rhizome, snapping off satisfyingly: take a deep breath and fill your lungs with the fresh, gingery scent. Unflowered stems may stay green and healthy outdoors all through winter in mild areas.
- If your gingers are in pots, you can put them 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.
- 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 adequate for most varieties. If you are concerned, dig up your rhizomes and pot them in clean, dry compost for the winter. Gingers don’t relish disturbance, so they are better left in situ if possible. They are great companions for spring bulbs as they grow so late in the year.
If I had one criticism, it would be that ginger flowers are shortlived. Growing several varieties and allowing them to make big clumps overcomes the issue by extending the flowering season and increasing the number of flower spikes. There are few sights as breathtaking as a clump of gingers in full bloom, and when you add the exquisite perfume on top, they have few rivals.
Dan Cooper is a plantsman, presenter and publisher of the acclaimed blog, The Frustrated Gardener. After a decade of sharing his love of gardening, he took the natural next step and launched Dan Cooper Garden – the first retailer of its kind. He now uses his personal experience to select the finest garden products and pair them with expert advice, all in one place.