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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 March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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