The year’s savage start is still paying dividends. Several tender perennials that I gave up for lost in spring are looking better than ever. Where frost bit into their rootstocks and blinded their buds, they’ve compensated by producing more shoots than usual, multiplying themselves. Now, they’re coming into bloom, a few weeks behind schedule and with extra gusto garnered from the late summer rains.
The most dazzling of them is Hedychium gardnerianum, the Kahili ginger, a native of mountainous forest in north India and the Himalayas. Arising from a thick and fleshy rhizome, it grows to between 4ft and 6ft tall, making a clump of cane-like stems elegantly serried with lance-shaped leaves. Emerging from the top of the stems, the inflorescence is a 1ft-long cylinder packed with pale gold butterfly blooms and tricked out with slender scarlet stamens. With what now looks like unnecessary timidity, I planted ours in a border beside the kitchen. In full flower, its perfume is intense, a blend of Arabian jasmine and Sikkim spice that suppresses all culinary miasmas on the other side of the wall.
I keep on writing ‘20 years ago, we wouldn’t have dared to leave it outside’. The Kahili ginger is another example. It used to be a conservatory plant, and had been so since its introduction to Britain in about 1820, when it was cherished as a mysterious treasure of Empire, horticulture’s equivalent of the Moonstone. Our own example of this botanical Brahmin seems to think otherwise. Its rude health amounts to a rebuke: ‘What a frightful fuss you people have been making for the past 190 years.’ I will still prepare for the worst, mulching and fretting. But the worst, as last winter proved, is not at all bad.
Which is good for Hedychium, a genus of 40 or so species, all of them worth growing. Many of these non-edible cousins of ginger have been filtering into British horticulture over the past four decades, but we’re only now becoming brave enough to use them in the garden. One of the most useful species is Hedychium densiflorum, rarely more than 4ft tall, slimmer and more biddable than the Kahili ginger, but no less beautiful. With vanilla-scented, tangerine flowers, its best-known selection, Assam Orange, was introduced as long ago as 1938.
For more grace and less zest, try H. densiflorum Stephen, with large, coral-curled ivory blooms and a languorous nighttime perfume. This variety was discovered in Nepal in 1966 by the plant explorer Tony Schilling, the driving force behind the establishment of Kew’s country seat at Wakehurst Place, in Sussex. He named it for his son, who was born in Kathmandu that year. Six years later, he collected seeds of another species, H. coccineum, on Nepal’s Nagarkot Ridge. Back at Wakehurst, these produced 6ft specimens aglow in amber and cinnabar red. This spectacular arrival was called Tara after the Nepalese word for star, which is also the name of Mr Schilling’s daughter and, appropriately enough, of the Hindu goddess who protects travellers over perilous terrain.
The RHS Plant Finder now abounds in Hedychium suppliers and plants, some of which are so new that they’ve yet to be named. The Schilling introductions have been joined by other species-the peaches-and-cream Hedychium chrysoleucum, for example, or the salmon-pink H. yunnanense, or H. greenii, an outrageously flamboyant creature with purple-painted foliage and vermilion flowers that can out-can-can a Canna.
All will thrive outdoors given shelter and warmth. Although they are shade-dwellers by nature, it’s wiser to grow them in sun to ginger them into flowering by autumn. A border beside a house or glasshouse is ideal. They like fertile soil that is rich in organic matter and damp in the growing season. Mulch their crowns heavily with compost or leafmould in winter. Don’t despair when frost kills them to the ground, or when Whitsun passes and they’ve still not stirred. Like many exotic beauties, hedychiums are late-risers.
The RHS Plant Finder is published by Dorling Kindersley, or visit www.rhs.org.uk/plants
No.39: House auriculas for the winter
Auriculas will have been kept somewhere cool and shady for the summer, their
least favourite season. Now is the time to return them to the cold frame or greenhouse for the winter. A wash and brush-up
will clean out their quarters. Put the plants back in a regular order so that
you can keep an eye on them. As each plant is placed, look it over and remove
any evidence of pest or disease damage, and wipe the pot over with a cloth
dipped in water with a squirt of lemon juice. From now on, water once a week.