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Ginger--It's a Snap!

From colorful bracts to delicate orchid-like flowers, the plant adds spice to O.C. gardens and flower beds or works as ground cover.

April 04, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although ginger is a striking plant with exotic, often fragrant flowers that thrives in Orange County, it isn't well known here.

"Most people recognize the spice ginger root but don't realize that all gingers make really attractive additions to the landscape," says Glenn Stokes, owner of Stokes Tropicals in New Iberia, La., a mail-order company that specializes in tropical plants, including gingers.

Until recently, except for a few hard-to-find varieties, gingers were virtually unheard of in the United States, says Stokes, who sells more than 150 varieties.

"Many gingers are originally from Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific, where they have enjoyed popularity as an ornamental plant for centuries," he says. "The spice ginger root at one time was worth more than its weight in gold."

Gingers come in many sizes with a variety of flower types and foliage. Many have bold, strikingly colorful bracts; others have delicate, orchid-like flowers. Most gingers flower in July, August and September, although you'll find some flowering year-round, depending on the variety. Spring is the ideal time to plant.

"There is a ginger for every landscaping situation," Stokes says. "They grow in shade to full sun. Some are large plants, while others make good ground covers."

Edible ginger (Zingiber officinale) has thin stems and leaves and an eye-catching green-to-red floral cone.

Red torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) has tall basal flower clusters that spread out at the top like a torch and are often used in arrangements.

Red tower ginger (Costus barbatus) has stunning red bracts and bright yellow, long-blooming flowers.

Pinstripe ginger (Alpinia formosana) has attractive foliage and large clusters of white and red flowers. The red and white striped flowers of peppermint stick (Alpinia Japonica) are eye-catching, with long, waxy leaves that are fuzzy underneath.

The Siam tulip (Curcuma alismatifolia) resembles a lavender tulip, and the white butterfly (Hedychium coronarium) has a multi-petaled, extremely fragrant white flower shaped like a butterfly. Orange bottlebrush ginger (Hedychium coccineum), with long spikes of delicate orange flowers, attracts butterflies.

Ginger is a perennial herb that is generally grown by rhizomes. It thrives in containers or well-draining ground soil, where the rhizomes will multiply.

Keep the following tips in mind:

* First determine the growing conditions you can offer. Most thrive in partial shade, although some require full shade and others full sun.

* Plant a rhizome on its side in a pot 3 to 4 inches larger than the width of the rhizome. Place 1/2- to 3/4-inch deep in a well-draining, light potting mix that contains perlite and peat moss. Water well. Place pot in a warm area indoors or outdoors in light shade in spring.

* A thin green stalk will appear in about three weeks, although some can take up to eight weeks.

(If you are afraid that the plant is dead, stick your thumb and forefinger into the soil and gently squeeze the rhizome. If it's firm, it's fine. If it has become soft and mushy, it has been attacked by fungi or bacteria and should be replaced.)

* Over-watering is the leading cause of failure. Water only when the soil is approaching dryness, which will vary according to time of year and the plant's location.

* Once leaves emerge, fertilize with a half-strength 8-4-6 or 4-2-3 water-soluble fertilizer for the first three to five waterings, switching to full-strength once the plant is 3 to 4 inches high and has established a good root and leaf system.

Fertilize once a month from then on.

* When the plant is 3 to 4 inches high and appears healthy, transplant to a container--choose a 6- to 8-inch pot and the same potting mix--or into the ground.

In the ground, make sure you have good drainage; ginger will rot in wet soil. Amend with perlite, peat moss or ground bark. If your in-ground drainage is poor and the soil is heavy clay, plant in raised beds.

* Some gingers will grow year-round; others will go dormant in the winter because of short days and reappear in the spring. All gingers need to be divided every three years, or you will end up with a large clump and less vigorous plants.

* Edible ginger root can be harvested six to nine months after planting. Wait until you have five to 10 stems, then remove roots at the perimeter of the plant clump. Let roots dry indoors for three or four days before using.

Stokes Tropicals has two full-color catalogs that describe gingers and growing requirements ($4 for both).

Call (800) 624-9706 or visit the Web site at http://www.stokestropicals.com.

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