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Scent of the tropics in Sacramento

Cold-hardy ginger varieties right at home in NorCal

White ginger blossom
This is the blossom of white ginger, a perennial which enjoys undisturbed shady spots. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

Every Labor Day, my garden smells like a tropical paradise – and looks the part, too.

The reason? The ginger is back in bloom again.

Blooming from late August into November, some varieties of this reliable perennial perform extremely well in Sacramento. Members of the Hedychium genus, these varieties are native to the Himalayas and can take some winter cold. They also enjoy undisturbed shady spots, and there are plenty of those in my mature landscape.

We have just enough winter cold for these perennials to die back each December, which keeps them under control. In tropical climates, they’re considered invasive species.

Growing up to 6 feet tall, the lanky plants tend to flop over unless supported. They need only average irrigation (once a week) and are relatively pest-free. Thriving on neglect, they love spots under my Japanese maples and in between shrubs in my photinia hedge.

Their rhizomes look like bearded iris – or the ginger root in grocery stores. (But consumption of these varieties is not advised; culinary ginger – which is not as cold-hardy – is Zingiber officinale .) Instead of food, these varieties are grown for their intense fragrance.

Oh, how they perfume the evening air! Mixed with the Delta breeze, it’s a breath of Hawaii.

These ginger plants came with our house; they were planted more than 30 years ago by the former owner, a native of Hawaii. They made her feel at home.

Now, I can close my eyes and pretend I’m far away on a tropical island. (It’s as close as I’ll get to a Hawaiian vacation this summer.)

Kahili ginger
Kahili ginger has huge blooms that entice hummingbirds.

The most spectacular of these gingers is yellow Kahili ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum . It looks like a spectacular feather headdress with long red-orange stamens popping out of bright yellow blooms, arranged in a tall column. The flowers often are 8 to 10 inches tall and look regal in the garden or a vase.

Hummingbirds can’t get enough of these huge blooms, working down the column and collecting nectar.

Much more numerous in my garden is white ginger, Hedychium coronarium . A native of India, Nepal and China, this forest ginger grows like a weed. (It’s considered a serious invasive plant in Hawaii.) In China, its aromatic oil is used as a folk remedy.

African slaves, who used ginger leaves as mattresses, introduced white ginger to South America and the Caribbean. White ginger, also known as mariposa or butterfly flower, is the national flower of Cuba.

Tourists often bring home small ginger roots from Hawaii or other tropical areas; give them time and they will bloom. For us mainlanders, these gingers are available from tropical plant specialty nurseries such as Kanoa Hawaii ( ).

Treat these gingers like bearded iris, planting the rhizomes just below the surface. One established, they’ll put on a fragrant flower show September after September, creating your own little slice of tropical paradise.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Dec. 3:

Make the most of gaps between raindrops. This is a busy month!

* Windy conditions brought down a lot of leaves. Make sure to rake them away from storm drains.

* Use those leaves as mulch around frost-tender shrubs and new transplants.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they're dormant.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Plant one last round of spring bulbs including daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas. Get those tulips out of the refrigerator and into the ground.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers such as California poppies.

* Plant such spring bloomers as sweet pea, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Late fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from fall and winter rains.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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