As summers seem to extend through October, winters appear a bit milder and humidity still drapes the skin like a wet sheet most days of the year, it’s hard not to compare South Georgia’s climate to that of the tropics. One can make a case for using ornamentals from climatic zones warmer than ours to design a landscape very different from the naturally occurring coastal environment. The use of banana, crinum lily, ginger, canna, croton, aloe, philodendron, hibiscus, ixora, foxtail fern, bamboo, bougainvillea and tibouchina has long been in practice in coastal Zone 9A with the knowledge that a severe winter could kill some of these plants, while causing others to simply die to the ground and return from below the soil surface the following spring. Over many years of gardening, I have planted them all, some directly into the landscape and others in containers. The success has been planting them in organically rich soil, offering additional water in times of drought and providing some protection from the blazing afternoon summer sun. All of our three home sites have had the canopy of surrounding live oaks and other maritime forest species and perhaps that is an additional reason behind the success.
Of all those listed above, I have found the gingers to be the most exotic because they offer an array of flowers that truly are unique to each species. I’d like to share my top five with you.
• Japanese Ginger (Alpinia japonica) is a good choice for the moist shade garden. The scent alone makes it worth planting. Cold hardy to Zone 7B, it can be evergreen, although severe winters limit it to being semi-evergreen when temperatures go below 20° F. If protected from winter damage, you will be rewarded with spectacular 20” red flower spikes in the spring that appear on 2-year-old canes. This herbaceous perennial spreads by subterranean stems and performs well as a tall ground cover. It has leafy stalks that reach 2-3 feet in height. Leaves emit a delicious scent when brushed against.
• Red Stem Ginger (Curcuma “Red Emperor’”) has noticeable red stems with a center red midrib on the large leaf. The showy pink flowers emerge from the ground in early spring before the foliage. Growing in various locations in the garden, it seems to do well in areas of bright filtered light or where part day morning sun occurs. Foliage will reach up to 5-6’ in height in the growing season but dies back with the first frost. The underground rhizomes are easy to dig up for sharing. Our one planting has been turned into four additional plantings by simply moving clumps in the early spring. We even have success with transplanting whole plants in the heat of the summer as long as the containers are kept moist and the plants are kept in filtered light while they adjust and grow new roots.
• Cardamom Leaf Ginger (Alpinia nutens) is one of the hardiest members of the ginger family. It forms good sized clumps and offers evergreen foliage that has a delightful cardamom scent when crushed although it is not the plant that produces cardamom pods. It prefers filtered shade and can be more tolerant of drought than some of the other gingers. It is surprisingly resistant to disease and pests. Cardamom ginger is often a prolific bloomer. The flowers are white, shell-like sprays.
• Pine Cone Ginger (Zingiber zerumbet) is a fragrant ornamental perennial whose foliage appears in clumps in early spring from underground fleshy rhizome stems. Its unique flowers appear from late summer into fall. Each 10-12 inch flower stem is topped with a single, cone-like bracted inflorescence that resembles a green pine cone. The fleshy cone matures, turns red and small whitish flowers emerge from between the bracts. Winter temperatures will cause the above ground foliage to die every year. We let the foliage remain on the ground throughout the winter before removing it as warmer temperatures return but if deemed unsightly in your garden, simply snip it off. Pine cone ginger is disease- and pest-resistant and when established, it needs very little supplemental irrigation or fertilization.
• Hawaiian Blue Ginger (Dichorisandra thysiflora) is not actually a ginger, but rather is found in the spiderwort family. I’ve included it because it just fits right in with the others above. This tropical clump-forming perennial offers a vivid display of tall 10-inch spikes of rich purplish-blue flowers in late summer and fall that are impossible to overlook. Blue ginger thrives in shade, is perfect for mass plantings and requires a moist, well-drained rich soil. It will die back in harsher winters here.
These exotic beauties may not always be easy to find. It may take a bit of exploration on your part. I’ll put in a plug for ACE Garden Center on St. Simons Island for its diversity of plants and their employees’ willingness to help you meet your plant needs. TyTy Nursery, in TyTy, is another great source of tropical gingers. You can visit their website at tytyga.com.