“There’s no adventure anymore.” That’s the text message I received the other day. A friend was reading about the late-Victorian plant explorers, with their treks above rushing waterfalls to rustle up rare magnolias and their secret shimmies into monastery gardens to nab precious tree-peony seeds.
Contemporary gardeners may not likely journey into the remote hillsides of Nepal, but we can create romantic versions of such wilds in our own gardens. Himalayan spring-blooming flora is well represented in many American gardens, with our abundance of saucer magnolias (Magnolia xsoulangeana), Sikkim rhododendron and primroses (Primula). But to really replicate the full lushness of those landscapes, we need plants for late-summer excitement as well.
To wit, the ginger lilies—plants from the genus Hedychium. Their foliage is large and glossy, held on elegant narrow stems that are in many cases lax and arching. Giant flower heads stand proudly, dripping with petals like flying banners in every warm color, pale yellow through coral and scarlet.
Growing Ginger Lilies
Hedychiums prefer to grow in damp, partially shaded conditions. Sheltered conditions—particularly a multilayered planting with tree canopy above, shrubs to the side and a thick groundcover layer—will protect their lush foliage and flowers from drying in the wind. Bright shade, such as a high tree canopy, will result in the best bloom. Rich, humusy soil and a strong leaf mulch will keep your hedychiums happy and healthy. Abundant moisture will help support these large and abundant plants. Some species, such as white butterfly ginger, grow well at the edges of ponds and streams.
In regions where they’re not hardy in the ground, plant hedychiums in large containers. Shift these into a cool but unheated garage or cellar after a hard fall frost kills the foliage. Make sure they don’t dry out completely while in winter storage. Shift them back out into the garden once the threat of frost has passed in spring.
Ginger Lilies to Try
Orange bottlebrush ginger (Hedychium coccineum; USDA Zones 8–10) has large, heavy clusters of bloom in shades of orange. Its foliage is narrow, in an opposite arrangement along the pseudostem. This foliage setup gives the plant a strong structural appearance. While it’s one of the least fragrant hedychium species, it’s also one of the most prolifically blooming, with large flower heads thickly packed with flowers. Several varieties are also commonly grown: Hedychium c. var. angustifolium has tall flower spikes and narrow leaves, with slimmer flowers than the typical species. Selected varieties available in the United States include H. c. ‘Applecourt’, with bright true-orange flowers and darker throats; ‘Peach’, with large flowers that open pale yellow and transform into a pale orange-pink; and ‘Slim’s Orange’, a dwarf but heavy-blooming cultivar with flowers deep salmon-coral in color.
White butterfly ginger (H. coronarium; Zones 7–10) is one of the most widely grown hedychiums, particularly in the United States. Its large, gold-throated white flowers exude a sweet aroma that can scent your entire garden. It’s the national flower of Cuba, where it’s called flor de mariposa, butterfly flower. There’s a large-flowered cultivar, ‘Maximum’, which is a bit larger than the typical form; it’s said to reach up to eight feet high. In addition, there’s a selection with pale yellow centers called the gold-spot ginger lily (H. c. var. chrysoleucum).
Orange butterfly ginger (H. densiflorum, Zones 8–10) is a strong plant with—dare I say it?—even a more bottlebrush appearance than H. coccineum. Its large but short (to six inches) flower spikes are densely packed with starry flowers in a clear bright orange. Plants are variable, but they rarely reach more than three feet in height. Cool-climate gardeners in the North and Pacific Northwest, where lack of summer heat makes it difficult to get other species to bloom, should try this one. It’s a high-elevation plant, with its native range primarily through Nepal and the Himalayas, and it requires a cool, shady location in regions with hot summers. Several varieties have been selected for varying color and fragrance: ‘Assam Orange’ has large, deep-orange flower spikes. Those of ‘Sorung’ have a strong peach-pink tint. ‘Stephen’ is perfect for your ’90s pastel-themed garden, with pale yellow to orange blooms. ‘Sorung’ and ‘Stephen’ are the most fragrant of the H. densiflorum cultivars.
Kahili ginger (H. gardnerianum, Zones 9–10) has some of the largest flower heads of all its ilk. The florets themselves have flaring yellow petals with dangling red stamens, gathered up in massive blooms spikes 12 to 16 inches in height. Its leaves are beautiful, sometimes glaucous, with a similar texture and shape as banana (Musa) foliage, although carried alternately on arching pseudostems. There are a few selections chosen, mostly for height: ‘Compactum’ is short (up to 48 inches), while ‘Extendum’ is tall (96 inches high). A paler-flowered form, H. g. var. pallidum, has also been selected, but it isn’t widely available in the United States.
Beyond the species and their cultivars, there are also fantastic interspecific hybrids of ginger lily that offer a happy range of color and flower forms. ‘Anne Bishop’ (Zones 8–10) is one of the most widely grown. While slow to bulk up, it has strong foliage to 60 inches high. Giant panicles—12 inches high and half as wide—bear strong apricot flowers with deeper-hued throats. It’s heavily fragrant. ‘Dr. Moy’ (Zones 8–10) is one of the few variegated hedychium hybrids to be widely available in American nurseries. The foliage is light green and densely flecked with cream. Variegation does affect its vigor, so the plants usually reach only three to four feet in height. Its peach flowers are borne sparsely, but they have a strong and carrying fragrance. ‘Pink V’ (Zones 7–10) is one of the most popular hybrids bred by ginger expert Tom Wood. The plant reaches five feet in height, with deep green foliage arranged closely along the stems. Its funnel-shaped flowers are pale salmon at the edges, deeper at the throat. It flowers over an exceptionally long period; you’ll have blossoms all summer long with this phenomenal plant in your garden.
Whether you live where butterfly gingers can survive in the garden all year or in a colder climate where you’ve got to keep them cozy for the winter, they are a phenomenal addition to any garden. With their magnificent tropical leaves and flamboyant perfumed flowers, hedychiums will fill your space with flagrant aroma and sensational flower flags. You won’t need to trek to the Himalayas for excitement—you’ll find adventure just by walking out to your own back garden.
H. coccineum: peganum/CC BY-SA 2.0
H. coronarium: Wendy Cutler/CC BY-SA 2.0
H. densiflorum 'Assam Orange': S. Rae/CC BY 2.0
H. gardenerianum: LiCheng Shih/CC BY 2.0