Hedychium

Some plants just scream "jungle". These include bananas, cannas and gingers. Hedychium, the ginger lilies, are similar to the cannas and bamboos in having large, attractive foliage.

Hedychium (image: Floramedia Database)
Hedychium (image: Floramedia Database)

They also produce very showy, spicily fragrant flowers in a dense spike. Hedychium are rhizomatous perennials. During dormancy nothing shows, but thick stems begin to emerge from late spring, covered in two ranks of leaves. The flowers are produced from midsummer to the first frosts. They can be white, yellow or red and feature prominent colourful stamens, often contrasting strikingly with the petals.

Their hardiness ranges from frost-hardy to tender so southern and western parts of the UK may be able to get away with planting some of the species permanently outside. However, colder regions will have to treat them all as patio or summer bedding plants and bring them in over winter.

Perhaps the best known is H. gardnerianum Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which produces large heads of highly perfumed, bright-yellow flowers with orange filaments. It can flower well in gardens in mild areas but can also be grown in a large pot and overwintered in a conservatory or greenhouse. Other relatively hardy species or varieties include H. greenii, H. ‘Tara’ AGM and H. forrestii.

Another good species is H. coronarium, the white-flowered Butterfly ginger, which has glossy, mid-green leaves that are slightly downy on their undersides. Because its native habitat is alongside streams it can cope with standing in water.
If being planted outside, Hedychium are best sited in a sunny position and they benefit greatly from the shelter of a south- or west-facing wall. The plants thrive best when their rhizomes are at ground level but to get them established in the first year it is advisable to plant them deeply. They will work their way upwards. Give them a mulch over winter to protect the rhizomes.

For those truly tropical varieties that need a minimum temperature of 18°C, or those that flower so late they are at risk from being lost if still outside when the first frosts hit, it is always best to plant into large patio pots. They can be brought in before dangerous temperatures arrive.

They need plenty of water and are heavy feeders in the growing season. Urban Jungle owner Liz Browne recommends a high-nitrogen feed from April to August followed by tomato food in September to October to toughen them up for winter. They will suffer from scorch in a greenhouse or conservatory in the height of summer so should have some shade. Watering should be minimal in winter, allowing the plants to become dormant. Cut down old spikes once they go brown.

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What the specialists say

? Kevin Clift, proprietor, Springwood Nursery, East Sussex

"Hedychium are fabulous jungle foliage plants. Some varieties have spectacular flowers and very strong perfume, which is what originally caught my attention.
"They are slightly slower to get going than cannas but wonderful plants just the same. In flower, nothing can touch them. The size and strong honeysuckle smell of the flower heads are something else. They were very popular in Victorian times and are making a comeback.
"Variety wise, H. gardnerianum St Martin Hybrid, H. ‘Kewense’, H. flavescens and H. dennisiflorum ‘Stephen’ are a few of my favourites. The St Martin Hybrid is probably my most favourite because it has very large flowers and a strong perfume."

? Liz Browne, partner, Urban Jungle, Norfolk

"Hedychium are easy and rewarding plants to grow. Some of them are extremely hardy, even enduring the cold winter of 2010-11 outside without protection.
"This summer is exceptionally cool and many of our Hedychium may not flower — that remains to be seen — but as foliage plants alone they are worthy additions to the garden, especially H. greenii, which has dark-green leaves with lustrous burgundy undersides, and H. thyrsiforme with its really generous pleated textured leaves.
"Hardy species may be left in the ground but it’s a good idea to mulch in winter. Sun/part shade in a good, rich, fertile soil is ideal. Less hardy species should be lifted before winter, potted and kept frost-free and barely moist. Those with a conservatory can enjoy a few late flowers and foliage through winter if evergreen species are chosen such as H. gardnerianum AGM, H. coronarium and H. thyrsiforme.
"Outstanding ones are H. greenii and H. gardnerianum AGM for foliage and flowers. H. ‘Tara’ AGM and H. forrestii are both extremely hardy and reliable, while H. coronarium has the most exquisite perfume."

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In practice

? John Winterson, deputy buyer, RHS Plant Centres

"We have sold gingers for many years now and we really like them. Our range currently includes H. densiflorum ‘Assam Orange’, H. densiflorum ‘Stephen’, H. ‘Dixter’, H. gardnerianum AGM and H. moorei ‘Tara’ AGM. Most recently we have focused on the hardier varieties to try and widen their appeal.
"We find they are very underrated, but when our customers see them in flower they are usually quick to snap them up, often not realising what they are beforehand. It is hard to be able to offer them in flower without having them in huge pots and them being way too tall for most nurseries to produce. Instead, we offer them in a four-litre pot with good colour point-of-sale and a good colour label.
"At Wisley Plant Centre they are sold from both the bedding section and the herbaceous section — another reason why we picked hardier types. We find demand is stronger later in the season as the ones planted in the gardens come into flower and customers can see how beautiful they are.
"They are a very classy plant and I think my favourite is H. densiflorum ‘Assam Orange’ with its very bright-orange flowers. They are easy to look after in the planteria, and can even tolerate the odd dry spell."

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Species and varieties

? H. coccineum AGM (H1) is a hardy ginger with orangey-red flowers — smaller than similar variety ‘Tara’. Height: 1.5m.

? H. coronarium is highly fragrant and produces clusters of white flowers marked with yellow in September. Plant outside in sheltered sunny gardens or in a big pot and protect in winter. Height: 1.2m.

? H. densiflorum ‘Stephen’ is a robust ginger — one of the hardiest and earliest to flower. It has orange and yellow flower heads that give off a lovely hyacinth-like scent in the evening. Height: 1.2m.

? H. flavescens has large, creamy yellow flowers heads with a strong, heady scent. It produces tall, strong stems covered in slender leaves. Hardy down to -4°C but best brought inside before it flowers in the autumn to protect it from frost. Height: 2m.

? H. forrestii is perhaps the hardiest of the large-flowered gingers. A tall species that soon forms a spreading clump in the garden. Large heads of white flowers. Height: 1.8m.

? H. gardnerianum AGM (H1) is a reliable free-flowering form, suitable for the garden or large containers that can then be overwintered in a conservatory or greenhouse. Large heads of highly perfumed, fragrant, bright-yellow flowers with an orange filament. Height: 1.8m.

? H. gardnerianum St Martin hybrid is a robust, reliable free-flowering form, suitable for the garden or large containers that can be overwintered in a greenhouse or conservatory. It produces large heads of highly perfumed, honeysuckle-scented, fragrant, bright-yellow flowers with an orange-red filament. Hardy to -10°C and able to cope well in windy positions. Height: 1.4m.

? H. greenii is a superb foliage plant, with maroon stems and underside of the leaves, with the top of the leaf a dark, glossy green. It is relatively hardy but flowers late in the year so is best brought inside before the first frosts. It has large flowers that are a striking orange-red but have no scent. Height: 1.8m.

? H. ‘Tara’ AGM (H3) is a highly popular hybrid of coccineum with scarlet-red flowers on a large flower head. One of the hardiest and first to flower. It is the only red ginger to have a decent scent, though not as strong as other varieties. Height: 2m.

? H. thyrsiforme is known as a pincushion ginger because of its spiky flowers. This species produces white flowers with a pale-cream flush at the base. Flowering is best in a greenhouse or conservatory but it can be grown in sheltered gardens as a foliage plant. The slightly glossy, dark-green leaves are broad, attractively corrugated and borne on arching stems. Height: 1m.


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