Plant of the Month – October, 2007
Latin Name: Hedychium coronarium
Common Name: Butterfly or luna moth ginger
Flowers: Pure white or white with yellow center
Foliage: Canna-like bright green leaves
Mature height: 3-5 ft.
Hardiness: die-back perennial to Zone 7
Soil: Not picky
Exposure: Full sun to light shade
Water usage: High
Sources: Mail-order or local nurseries
In my opinion, gardening is something that is enjoyed with all the senses. It’s how I can spot a good gardener. Next time you’re walking along with someone, watch them when they are near plants – if they pick some hidden leaf and crumble and sniff it, run their fingers through the grasses, pull a flower down to see how fragrant it is, or shake a seed pod, then you most likely have a gardener on your hands.
Gardening is meant to be enjoyed by all the senses. Fine-tune all five, and you can take the pulse of your backyard just by wandering around in it. I was once told that a good mechanic could ride in a car and by sound, feel, touch and smell, could diagnose problems. I believe a good gardener can do the same. We can see a leaf color that just doesn’t look right, and we can hear the oak worms chewing from inside the house.
So what does that have to do with this month’s plant? Well, butterfly ginger is one plant I just won’t garden with out, mainly because I love watching people experience a garden for more then just pretty colors. Butterfly ginger is one of those plants like gardenia, jasmine and honeysuckle, that can instantly get your attention on warm sticky days or balmy evenings. It doesn’t lightly waft through the air as much as hit you in the face like a warm, wet washcloth. I’ve literally seen people stop in their tracks and sniff like a bloodhound on a scent until they find the source of this perfume. I secretly smile every time I see it happen, and think “Gotcha!” Scientists say that our sense of smell is more directly linked to our memory than any other sense. Maybe that explains why gardens are like living history books to me. One whiff of this flower or that and I’m some other place where I first experienced the aroma.
OK, so back to the plant. Butterfly ginger is not only fragrant, it is a tough perennial made for Texas summers. It likes it HOT and sticky! Think it’s going to be finicky to grow? Wrong! If you can grow cannas, you can grow this tropical ginger. Its foliage quickly sprouts to 3-foot-wide clumps and will reach 4 to 5 feet tall during the summer. Each stem will be topped with a cluster of large, white, butterfly-shaped flowers that are the source of the heavenly gardenia/lemon scent. Reliably hardy in Zone 7 south, I plant butterfly ginger along the edges of my patio so at night the fragrance is even stronger.
So what kind of soil does it need? It doesn’t care, as long as you keep it well-watered in summer and well-drained during winter. I’ve found this plant really flowers more and stays more compact if planted in full sun and kept moist. It even makes and outstanding bog plant. Most gardeners make the mistake of planting it in deep shade where it becomes leggy and doesn’t flower enough. Like elephant ears (a perfect complementary plant), it loves full sun, lots of water and fertilizer during summer months. It also makes a wonderful container plant or cut flower.
Butterfly ginger is available at most local nurseries and on the internet. If you are really adventurous, there are numerous hybrids of H. coronarium and H. coccineum with peach and yellow flowers. Some of those that have performed well for me are ‘Dr. Moy,’ with variegated leaves and yellow flowers, and ‘Pink V,’ with peach-colored spikes of flowers. They both have the same enchanting fragrance.
Every time I introduce someone to this plant, it isn’t long before I see it popping up in their yard whether they consider themselves a gardener or not. And each time I think to myself, “Gotcha!”.
You can see butterfly ginger at the Dallas Arboretum. We are located at 8525 Garland Road, overlooking White Rock Lake. For more information, visit www.dallasarboretum.org
About the author: Jimmy Turner is the Director of Horticulture Research at the Dallas Arboretum. For more plant profiles by Jimmy, subscribe to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS Magazine.