Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Red Ginger (Alpinia purpurata)

The Red Ginger is grown extensively throughout Hawaii and the other islands of the Pacific although it is a native of the Malaysian and/or Melanesian areas of the west Pacific.  I expect the flowers are sold throughout the world because they are a good long lasting tropical flower for the export trade.  Actually it is the bright red bracts of the flower that are the showy part.  The real flower is that tiny white flower you sometimes see peeping out from the red bracts.  Bundles of three or five flowers are commonly sold in Hawaii for putting on graves or to have in a vase in the house.  Of course they go well into big public flower arrangements too.  If you look at my blog for April 2012, you will see pictures of lots of Red Ginger being used in floral arrangements in Tahiti.  The red bracts of the flower can be pulled apart and the separate bracts used in lei making as well.

The Red Ginger is very popular in Samoa and has been taken on as a symbol of Samoa.  There it is called the Teuila and every year the country holds the Teuila Festival with lots of fun activities.  The plant grows well there in the hot and humid climate.  There is a very interesting note in Isobel Field's
1937 autobiography, "This Live I've Lived", about how she introduced the Red Ginger to Samoa for the garden up at Vailima and how it got its Samoan name.  Isobel was the step-daughter of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson who, along with his family, established a home in Samoa around 1890.  While there Isobel was given the name Teuila by the Samoans as she liked to beautify people and place.   To quote Isobel:

     "Believing that lovely flowering plant, the sweet-scented ginger, would grow at Vailima, I sent to Honolulu for some roots.  Soon they were blossoming everywhere, and the natives, admiring their perfumed beauty, paid me a pretty compliment.  To this day the sweet-scented ginger, that grows so luxuriantly in Samoa, is called the "Teuila flower"  I like to think of this, and that "my flower added a new fragrance to our dear Island."

As I have already noted, Red Ginger likes warm moist weather It likes full sun but will accept light shade.  It loves rich soils with lots of organic matter so give it lots of compost and mulch.  I have a problem with growing them in my garden because our sandy soil tends to make the leaves a bit yellow but the flowers still grow.  At my daughter's house they have a long line of Red Ginger growing along the side of the house where the rain falls of the roof.  It keeps the plants well watered without effort or cost most of the year.  Several years ago, I tended a  row of Red Ginger that must have been over 100 ft. long at least.  We left a soaker hose running through the plants which we connected up to the hose bib to water frequently......the water oozes out of the whole length of the hose.  Red Ginger flowers all year long but produces more flowers in the summer.  Giving a balanced fertiliser every few months will increase flower production.  Mature plants can grow as high as 10 ft. so keep that in mind when you place that small 2 ft. plant you bought from the nursery in the ground.  Red Ginger plants make a really good tropical screen for an ugly fence.

The one mistake that newcomers to Red Ginger make is in how they cut the flowers off.  Each stalk the plant grows produces one flower.  To harvest the flower or to trim of the dead flowers, cut the stalk at ground level.  If you cut the stalk half way down you will have ugly, and dangerous, sharp stalks with dead leaves left on display.  If you are harvesting the flowers to use in flower arrangements, the more stalk left on the flower the longer the flower will last.  The leaves are usually cut off the stalk with the top few leaves trimmed to make them smaller for better presentation.

There are many varieties of Alpinia purpurata.  The red flower is the most common but there is also a pale pink version.  In recent years, two other varieties have become popular in flower arrangements in Hawaii.  They are the Kimi, which is a fat pink flower with a lighter color center, and the Raspberry which is a darker pink and very attractive.  There is a Tahitian variety that you see often in Tahiti.  With this variety, the small flowerettes that can grow on the mother flower as part of vegetative reproduction form into a huge compounded flower the size of a football and looks spectacular in the garden.

young plantlet starting to grow on the old flower

plantlet and potted plantlets growing

Seeds are usually not formed in Red Ginger flowers although I have found some on the Kimi variety and have grown them.  The plant naturally produces by growing a plantlet on the mature flower. As the mother flower and stalk dies off the plantlet gets lowered to the ground, sends out roots and a new plant is grown.  To grow new Red Ginger plants, it is just a matter of collecting these plantlets and potting them up.  This is when you like lazy gardeners because if the gardener is diligent in keeping the plants trimmed and looking nice you are not going to find any plantlets growing on dying stalks.  The bigger and healthier the plantlet before you cut it off the better it will succeed in growing.  I usually stand the plantlets in water for a few days before I plant them up.  They do need to be placed in the shade while the roots get established and you will gets some dying of the leaves until this happens.  Then it is just a matter of watering and a bit of fertilizer to get the new plants growing to a few feet high and they are ready to be planted out.  It will take a year or so before the first flowers show up.  The adult plant can also be reproduced by dividing up the the rhizome base and transplanting them.


PS  June, 2015

Here is a photo taken in Fiji of the Tahitian type of Red Ginger that develops big compounded flowers.