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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 (
www.kanoahawaii.com ).

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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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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