Ornamental Ginger Plants: Everything You Should Know Before Planting

Ornamental ginger plants are prized throughout the tropics and sub-tropics for their long-living, exceptionally large, and uniquely shaped flowers, which emit a delightfully sweet and spicy aroma. These plants come from the Zingiberaceae, or ginger, family, which contains somewhere between 1300 and 1600 identified species. Within the ginger family, a few genera produce the bulk of the most common ornamental flowers, including Hedychium, Costus, and Curcuma. There are many options to choose from when it comes down to species, but the friendly gardeners over at The Spruce confirm that they all require the same kind of care to flourish. So, if you've got the right outdoor environment for tropical plants, or have a warm sunny spot for them to live throughout winter, then go ahead and have fun sorting through the bright and funky options in order to find an exceptional bloom for your garden.

It's important to note that though they smell very similar, ornamental ginger plants do not yield the ginger root we use as a spice in the kitchen. Those are commonly referred to as culinary ginger plants, and they have their own species classification called officinale. Culinary ginger is strictly for the vegetable patch. The small creamy yellow flowers that sometimes appear on the inflorescences of a culinary ginger plant are insignificant at best.

How to use ornamental ginger plants in the garden

Tropical plants need tropical growing conditions, so before planting any in your yard, you'll need to evaluate your surroundings closely. It's not that these plants don't like it when the weather gets cool or dry; it's that they cannot live without high heat and humidity. Anything below 50ºF will spell trouble for a ginger flower. This limits outdoor growing to hardiness zones 9 through 11 unless you have a heated greenhouse. In a tropical setting, landscaping possibilities abound. For the most part, once you get them into the ground, these stunners will blossom into surefire talk pieces that could bring life to a blank wall if they needed to. All you have to do is choose a color palette and get to planting because, really, what could mere mortals add to enhance a botanical masterpiece like the beehive ginger pictured above?

For practical purposes, leave plenty of space between plantings. Most ornamental ginger plants produce exceptionally large blooms and grow to be quite tall. The torch ginger shown at the top, for instance, can shoot up to 20 feet high, Gardening Know How notes. Lastly, pick a spot that has some diffused or dappled light. Ornamental gingers do not need harsh direct sunlight; they'll actually fare better in a little bit of shade.

How to grow ornamental ginger plants

Zingiberaceae is a family of rhizomes, so the easiest and generally most successful way to propagate them is by rhizome division. Gardening Know How cites a stretch of warm weather after some rain has fallen as the best time to do this. Also, keep an eye out for rhizomes poking up out of the soil. Regardless of the season, this is a sign that the larger unit is ready to be split. Gently dig out the large rhizome and locate the nodes where new growth will sprout.

When slicing off rhizome pieces, make sure each new piece contains more than one node. Since you won't be eating the roots of ornamental ginger, you can immediately plant each piece in a tall grow pot. Use a rich, well-draining growing medium and bury the baby rhizomes deep with the nodes facing up. Water generously, keep them warm and give it a few weeks before you expect to see signs of healthy new plant sprouts. Seed propagation is best left to the experts or the experimenters with a lot of extra time on their hands. Mature plants rarely produce seeds, and those few seeds rarely produce the most vibrant plants, making the years you'll spend trying to accomplish success likely not worth it.

How to care for ornamental ginger plants

According to the experts from the University of Hawai'i's Cooperative Extension Service, ornamental ginger plants will flourish with just a little bit of tender loving care. Steady watering ranks high in priority for overall plant health with the added benefit of producing the most beautiful flowers. Gingers need at least 1 inch of water per week, so keeping the soil moist is a must. In a tropical climate zone, they should do fine with regular heavy rainfall; however, if you live somewhere drier or your area is experiencing long periods of drought, you may need to consider irrigation options.

As for fertilizer, Cooperative Extension Service recommends a monthly application with a high-nitrogen content to increase blooms. Removing dead flowers and damaged foliage through pruning will keep your plant looking beautiful. Go all the way down to the ground level when cutting back flowers that are ready to drop.

Ornamental ginger plants varieties

The array of tropical ornamental ginger plants available for the home grower can feel pretty close to astounding. However, they all thrive in similar conditions, so you should be able to pick and choose based on their unique shapes and bright, catchy colors. Australia's Garden Clinic offers a handy guide to some of the most common varieties.

  • Zingiber spectabile goes by the apropos nickname beehive ginger, given that each flower bract grows into a cone shape that resembles a small beehive.
  • Zingiber zerumbet is another beehive variety best known as shampoo ginger. This one yields awapuhi, a common additive to shampoos, Sow Exotic notes.
  • Alpinia zerumbet is the scientific name for variegated shell ginger (pictured above), which produces delicate white flowers with red tips and splashes of yellow.
  • Alpinia purpurea gives us a long-lasting, deeply saturated, bright red or pink flower. Native to Malaysia, red ginger flowers are showy enough to also be referred to as ostrich plumes.
  • Etlingera elatior or torch ginger, is an absolute show stopper. It is one of the tallest growers with a distinctive bottle-rocket-shaped bloom that is usually red but can also be pink or (rarely) white.

Are ornamental ginger plants toxic?

True gingers are members of the scientifically classified Zingiberaceae family, and none of them are considered poisonous. Confirmed by the ASPCA's Toxic and Non-Toxic Plant List, this includes edible culinary ginger and the stunning ornamental tropical flowers discussed throughout this article. Unfortunately, per Nature's Poisons, confusion arises when folks talk about wild ginger. These plants are part of the Aristolochiaceae family of birthworts and therefore are not true gingers. They give off a similar scent, which is likely where they got their common name.

All told, the rhizomes of these plants contain 50 essential oils, each with its own distinct fragrance. They also contain aristolochic acid, which is sometimes used in very small doses as part of traditional herbal medicinals. The problem is that aristolochic acid is nephrotoxic. Simply put, it can cause kidney damage and fibrosis, and it can also lead to renal failure over a few short months. Wild ginger is easy to tell apart from ornamental ginger. Instead of a tall, glamorous tropical beauty, it is a low-lying perennial with small, unimpressive rust-colored flowers that bloom at ground level.

How to repot your ornamental ginger plants

Extra-large containers — starting at around 2 feet in diameter — are the way to go with potted ginger flowers for two reasons. First, they grow tall. A deep, heavy ceramic or concrete container will provide the necessary weight and support to keep them from toppling over. Second, their rhizomes grow wide. A thin plastic grow pot would likely crack open over time and leave you with a mess of spilled soil and vulnerable root systems. Since your potted ginger is likely to be very heavy, it's a good idea to find its home first and do the potting there. That way, you won't have to hire movers to relocate it to the other side of your patio.

As these are rhizome plants, repotting is generally not as necessary as dividing (breaking off pieces) of the rhizome. This will create space in the original pot, which you can then backfill with fresh, nutrient-dense soil before repotting your new rhizomes. That said, Tropical Plant Party reminds us to pay attention to how our plants react to general care. For instance, a plant that seems to never get enough water is indeed ready for a new pot.

Ethereal Curcuma longa blooms from turmeric

As noted earlier, culinary ginger plants do produce ornamental flowers. On the flip side, however, the same plants that give us rhizomes for culinary turmeric root powder also give us a gorgeous bloom. As seen pictured above, the ethereal blossom of the Curcuma longa is a delicate but mighty show stopper. As described by the growers at Plant Delights Nursery, these blooms are shaped like pinecones and flower from the base of the rhizome itself or at the end of pseudostems. The bracts of Curcuma longa flowers are usually white and pink, but they can also come in yellows, greens, and dark reds.

Curcuma flowers have become particularly popular in the Netherlands, where Dutch growers are offering colored varieties dyed and encased in wax, Thursd. reports. By protecting them from the cold, the wax gives the cut flowers an extra-long shelf life. And the color options span the rainbow from purples to pastel oranges to deep Bordeaux.