The ginger lily is a plant whose relative obscurity is matched only by its beauty and reliability in the garden. As is so often the case with plants, ginger lily is a misleading name; this species is not a lily and, although a member of the ginger family, has no vaunted culinary attributes.
Ginger lilies are blooming now, and you may see some examples at the flower shop. Like other rhizomatous plants such as bearded iris and agapanthus, the ginger lily is famous for its cut flowers. The showiest ginger lily is the kahili ginger (Hedychium garderanum), from the Himalayas, which has large yellow flower spikes with red stamens.
Ginger lilies are excellent companions to the banana-leaved canna, requiring the same conditions for growth. I realize this may not be of much help, since the canna is somewhat tricky to grow. Actually, it grows easily enough; the problem is that its leaves burn when exposed to full sun, yet it refuses to flower in the shade.
Sunset Western Garden Book recommends “light shade” for the ginger lily, a microclimate found directly under a tall tree. But ginger lilies – and cannas too, for that matter – may also do well in two other microclimates. One is that found in the no man’s land between neighboring houses or buildings, and the other is up against an east- or west-facing wall. In both of these situations, the full sun that the plant sees does not dry out the soil around its roots. Between buildings, the sun cannot find an angle to reach the soil; when a plant is against a wall, its root hairs will cling to the always-moist soil next to the foundation. Both ginger lilies and cannas require constant soil moisture to grow well.
Before the earthquake, there was an enormous clump of kahili ginger, at least 10 feet tall, growing against the facade of an apartment building in Sherman Oaks (on the corner of Moorpark Street and Cedros Avenue). The earthquake spelled the demise of the building as well as the plants around it. Today there is a new building and no more kahili ginger, but in its place is one of the most magnificent entry plants you could ask for: a burgundy and green banana tree. Its leaves, which are 8 feet long, are green on one side and burgundy on the other. Bananas and cannas grow in the same microclimate as well.
Gary Hammer, who grows 20 different cannas himself, recommends Canna “Pretoria,” which has enormous, variegated leaves with burgundy, green and gold in them. And then there’s Canna “Technicolor,” a dwarf cultivar with vivid variegated leaves and pink flowers. Hammer also grows nine different types of ginger lily. His nursery, at 11156 Orcas Ave., Lakeview Terrace, is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. He can be reached at (213) 722-3976.
Thanks to Mary Kyropoulous for drawing my attention to ginger lilies. Mary is growing several different Hedychiums herself, including one type with bronze underleaf. What she has the most of is Hedychium flavum, a yellow, sweetly scented species. She recently acquired a kahili ginger rhizome by mail order, planted it and has already managed to bring forth a number of healthy leaves. This speaks well of the ginger lily’s fortitude, since getting a mail-order plant to grow is not always easy.
Actually, ginger lilies are among the least fussy of plants. As long as they have some way of mollifying the effects of summer’s heat, they will flower reliably year after year. Just when you have practically forgotten them and wonder if their unglamorous leaves have any purpose at all, terminal buds on long-leaf stalks will suddenly open, gracing the garden with brief but memorable blooms.
Tip of the week: Bulbs. Bulbs. Bulbs. Now’s the moment to plant them. Not too deep. Not too shallow. A depth three times a bulb’s diameter at its widest point is recommended. Don’t be upset if fancy bulbs produce flowers for just one year and are never seen again. The bulbs that return year after year are those that originate in the Mediterranean and South Africa and have not been highly hybridized. Returning bulbs include: paper white narcissus, lachenalia, sparaxis, white freesia, nerine, crocosmia and watsonia.