One of the most sweetly fragrant flowers in my garden is the ginger lily, given to me years ago by a Master Gardener neighbor. It spent several years in a shaded area far from the house before I moved it to a better spot in full sun. Now it blooms better and I can see the flowers from the back door. It started blooming in September and will keep on until the first frost.
Ginger lily (Hedychium coronarium) isn’t a lily, but it is in the ginger family. The roots of ginger lily are edible but not particularly flavorful. Culinary ginger is a different genus and species (Zingiber officinale) within the ginger family. The tall tropical-looking plant reminds me of cannas, not in the ginger family but within the next larger category. If you’ve ever seen banana flowers, you’ll see some resemblance there too.
The name Hedychium means “sweet snow,” and traditionally ginger lily flowers are white. There are also many species, hybrids, and cultivars with red, orange, apricot, and yellow flowers. The flowers have four petals, giving the plant another common name, butterfly lily. Each flower only lasts a few days but is quickly replaced by more.
Ginger lilies originated in Asia, but they’ve been around the world long enough to become the national flower of Cuba. In Victorian England, they were a popular greenhouse plant, not considered hardy. In fact, most ginger lilies don’t thrive well outdoors in England, not because of cold winters, but because the cool summers don’t allow the plants to manufacture the sugars they need for winter survival. Not a problem here in the Mid-South!
During the summer, ginger lilies like to be kept well-watered. They also prefer rich, fertile soil. Mine are blooming more sparsely this year, probably because I failed to fertilize them. The tall plants sometimes need support, so I have mine against the back fence with a section of nearly invisible wire fence in front of them.
The roots are rhizomes that grow quite large and form an expanding clump. They’re easy to divide and share with gardening friends. The tops of the plants are killed by frost and should be cut down. The rhizomes go into winter dormancy. During this time, they need to stay relatively dry to avoid root rot. My plants are in a bed that is mounded about four inches higher than the surrounding ground for adequate drainage.
Although I’ve never protected my plants with mulch in winter, several sources recommend doing this. Ginger lily likes slightly acidic soil, so pine straw or pine bark is a good choice for winter mulch. The heat-loving plant can be slow to come back in spring, sometimes as late as June.
If you can’t find ginger lily for sale at our local nurseries and plant sales, there are several mail-order sources. Tony Avent’s Plant Delights in Raleigh, N.C., has a large selection. If you plant some big, healthy rhizomes this fall, you can enjoy tropical-looking flowers with a heavenly scent next summer.