Want to add a bit of tropical pizazz to your late summer or early fall perennial border? Then ginger lilies (Hedychium species) are your answer. They are not true lilies but distant cousins of edible gingerroot and originate in Asia. Hedychiums are a sign of good fortune and health and are the national flower of Cuba. In Hawaii, they are often used in leis and are widely grown as a cut flower.
Ginger lilies were extremely popular from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, where they were grown in Victorian conservatories throughout Europe and America. Due to rising fuel costs to heat large greenhouses, they fell out of favor. Luckily, on a trip to Nepal in 1965, Tony Schilling, a Kew Gardens botanist in England, rediscovered these beautiful plants. As the ones he collected were not cold-hardy, breeders got to work to develop more hardy cultivars. The white ginger lily (Hedchium coronarium) is one of the most commonly found cultivars on the market. In the last twenty years, over 100 new ginger lily cultivars have been released to the nursery trade. Check with your local nursery or garden center to see what is available in your area.
They are deciduous, herbaceous perennials which means they will die back to the ground in the winter. Cold hardy from USDA planting zones 8 to 10, they grow best in bright to part sun in rich, moist, well-drained soils. The flowers are highly fragrant and range in colors from white, yellow, peach, and orange. When ginger lilies are in bloom, hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinating insects are frequent visitors. Depending on the cultivar, height can range from 3 to 6 feet. Large, lance-shaped medium green leaves add a tropical element to the garden.
Ginger lilies can make large, 3 to 5 feet wide-spreading clumps, so be sure to give them plenty of room. They can be easily divided in the early spring when the new foliage begins to emerge from the soil. In the fall or early winter, frost will kill the vegetation back to the ground. Allow the foliage to fall to the ground, where it will provide winter protection for the rhizomes. The old foliage can then be easily removed in the late winter or early spring before the new growth begins to appear.