By Norman Bezona
University of Hawaii at Manoa Cooperative Extension Service
“Hawaii no ka oi,” roughly translated, means “Hawaii is the best” or “There is no better than Hawaii,” but it is always a good idea get away from Hawaii to check out how things are elsewhere.
Maybe by not thinking we are the best, gives us the chance to improve. A recent trip to Trinidad gave me an opportunity to observe what we have that they don’t have and visa versa. Of course this can be as dangerous as comparing two beautiful women. Each has its own attributes, so it’s probably better not to point out any deficiencies!
However, let’s be daring and go out on a limb.
Hawaii is blessed with a vast array of flowers, and we use them in the landscape for many reasons. Colorful flowering plants add visual beauty. They are useful for leis and flower arrangements, but an added advantage is that many are fragrant. Moist, humid tropical climates have the potential for rot and decay. This means bad smells, so by adding colorful and fragrant plants to the landscape, we can actually help to mask unwanted odors.
Trinidad has plenty of flowers and bad smells as well. Granted, the yummy odors of Indian curries or spicy rice and black beans are delicious, but not many flowers there are notable for their fragrance. I was surprised that fragrant plumerias and gingers were seldom to be found. Citrus and jasmines were not common, nor were Angel Trumpets. There were some colorful non-fragrant flowers we don’t usually see here, like their national tree, Chaconia, or Flame of Trinidad, and the yellow form of the Royal Poinciana, but where were the flowers that perfume our gardens?
When I got off the plane in Hawaii, the air even at the airport was fragrant and delightful, so when it comes to sweet air, “Hawaii no ka oi.”
Gingers are among the easiest of plants to grow for this purpose.
The ginger family is noted for its many colorful and fragrant species. Gingers are related to the banana, palm and bamboo families, in that they are monocots. This year many of the common gingers are blooming late due to dry weather earlier. In mauka West Hawaii, for example, kahili, white, yellow and Guava Jelly gingers usually start blooming as early as May. This year they started in late June and are going to be peaking most of the summer. Many gingers flower when days are long. If given additional artificial light, you can keep yellow and white ginger blooming through our cooler short-length days.
There are 40 genera and over 400 species in the family, the majority of which are native to tropical regions of Southeast Asia. Most genera are well adapted to Hawaii’s varied climate. Many grow in the tropical zone, but some will thrive at 5,000 or more feet in elevation.
Gingers are rhizomatous perennials, generally with simple unbranched stems. Flowers vary considerably, from small to very showy, and are usually borne in heads. Many of the ginger flowers are very fragrant, so fragrant in some cases that they are over-powering in a small room. Flowers and foliage of many species are excellent for use in floral arrangements. Gingers are relatively easy to cultivate, and once established require little care. They grow well on a wide range of soil types, as long as the soil is moist at all times. River banks and land adjacent to ponds or boggy spots are choice locations, and will support the best growth. If gingers are planted on high dry soils, frequent applications of water are necessary.
Handle gingers the same as bananas. They do best in moist soil high in organic matter. An application of fertilizer in early spring when growth begins, and two more applications at the same rate during the growing season, will be sufficient. The fertilizer applications should be spaced eight weeks apart. Also, compost and well-rotted manures applied every three months will help the soil keep sufficiently rich. Planting or transplanting can be done at any season of the year. The parent clump may be divided like any rhizomatous herb, such as gloriosa lily. The fleshy underground rhizomes can be severed at any point, as long as each piece has at least one good eye to produce a new plant.
Here are some gingers to consider for your garden.
The butterfly-lily, or white ginger, with its heads of white butterfly-like flowers is commonly found. Its extremely fragrant flowers last but a day and are constantly being replenished by a new supply. The flowering period will last for several months. Although common in the wilds, this is still one of the best for garden fragrance and lei flowers.
Although not fragrant, the shell ginger, with its 3-to-8-foot stalks of evergreen foliage, is frequently used in sunny, drier conditions than most gingers. Its flowers, with their combination of cream, yellow and red markings, are excellent material for floral arrangements.
The red ginger, Alpinia purpurata, is also common but very effective in the garden. It has a close relative, the Tahitian Red Ginger, which is rare but can be found in some local nurseries. Another relative is a pink form of red ginger called “Jungle Queen.”
Other gingers to watch for at our local nurseries and garden shops are several forms of torch ginger, still known incorrectly as Phaeomeria magnifica in the trade. In Trinidad, the torch ginger actually forms a large seed head that looks like a pineapple. It is pollinated by hummingbirds. Here in Hawaii, it seldom if ever forms seed. Also watch for cardamom ginger, Costus gingers, Curcuma gingers, and the orange flowered Himalayan ginger, Hedychium greenei.
On the Hilo side, you will also see fields of edible ginger. These may be grown in the home garden. Hawaiian olena or turmeric is also a great one to grow and use for health, since it helps reduce inflammation in the body.
We tend to take gingers for granted in Hawaii, where they grow easily, but few plant materials give so much for so little work. Try several types if you have the room in your garden.