What a hard summer it would be if you had to go through it without gingers.
I guess you could do it, if you had to, in a place like New England, where there’s not enough season to even bother. But when summer is as long and tropical as it is here on the Gulf Coast, the garden begs for them.
Gingers are jungle creatures, grubbing for moisture and light beneath overbearing trees in the world’s most tropical climates. In the steamy heat of the Bay area, they can be just as tough under the greedy trees in your yard. It has taken some getting used to, but gardeners here are finally getting an inkling of how big the world of gingers really is.
I still get calls from gardeners who want to surprise me with such familiar Southern favorites as the white “butterfly lily, ” the “hidden lily” and the pinecone ginger, plants passed around by old Mobile gardeners like white bread at a church picnic.
But as outstanding as these gingers are, they’re just appetizers.
Some of these could be gingers that you eat, from the familiar grocery store variety and turmeric to exotic treats like the galangal gingers so popular in Thai and Vietnamese cooking. But it’s the ones that are too pretty to eat that really deserve your attention.
From June through November, you could clothe your garden head-to-toe in gingers: ankle-high, waist-high, head-high, gingers 10 feet tall, red, orange, yellow, gold, peach, pink, blue and white.
Start with the butterfly gingers, the close relatives of the familiar white butterfly lily pass-around plant. Every member of the butterfly ginger family introduced to Gulf Coast gardens — and there are now hundreds of varieties in every imaginable shade of yellow, gold, red and orange — has proven to be not only hardy, but darn near rampant here.
The pinecone gingers treasured by old gardeners are generally just as hardy. What seems to be a rigid pinecone covered in brilliant red wax appears in late summer, but you’ll be surprised when you squeeze it and find that its soft flowers ooze a sweet juice that has been used as a shampoo in many parts of the world. OK, maybe you prefer your shampoo loaded with unpro-nounceable chemicals. But the appeal of the flower to adults and children alike is undeniable.
The spiral gingers and the hidden ones are less well-known but just as worthy of admiration. Some of the old obscured gingers — whose spectacular flowers are sometimes half-hidden in the attractive, banana-like leaves — have been circulating as nameless garden treasures in Mobile for more than a century. As we learn what to call them, we’re discovering new varieties, with less “hidden” blooms that resemble psychedelic pagodas.
You almost won’t care whether the spiral gingers bloom. Their beautifully geometric growth patterns — the stems literally spiral — seem to be inspired by radio signals from a distant nebula, and the flowers are another shocking treat, red with large white petals that just attract the eye no matter where it’s planted.
And then there are the gingers that have transformed the way the South thinks about shade gardening. Think of the kaempferia or “peacock” gingers as the hostas of the deepest South. Unlike hostas, however, they thrive on high heat and humidity. And hostas can’t compete with the variety of leaf patterns and colors of the new kaempferia hybrids.
These peacock gingers may prove to be one of the most useful shade garden plants introduced to the Deep South in the past 50 years. Given their required shade and deep, leafy soil, these gingers (most of which produce broad, speckled leaves in 6-inch-tall rosettes) will be the most handsome plants in your late summer garden. The orchid-like flowers, produced “naked” at ground level in April and May before the leaves emerge, are just lagniappe.
All of these gingers have filled a gaping hole in the Gulf Coast gardening year. Gingers thrive in our increasingly shady gardens and are the wonders of summer and fall, when most other shade plants have turned dull.
A few put on surprisingly beautiful flowers in spring, but all of them are at their peak in summer and fall. That they come up rather late in the spring (many may not emerge until May, or even the first of June) can be unsettling to ginger-growing newbies. But I’ve found their tardiness makes them a perfect complement to bulbs such as daffodils, narcissus, snowflakes, bluebells or rain lilies that bloom beautifully in spring before dying down in summer.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Bloom of the Month: White-topped pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla)
OK, if you look closely, you’ll see they’re not blooms at all. They’re fake flowers designed to lure insects into their gaudy leaves where they’ll be digested. The Gulf Coast’s white-topped pitcher plants know their seasons, and in the bogs where they grow, put on a fresh crop of leaves as the summer rains begin.
Signs of the Season
That’s not sheep, it’s the bleating of the narrow-mouthed toads in every ditch and small pond around the Delta. That’s the sound of rain every afternoon and thick, sultry nights that seem hotter than the days. This is Gulf summer, the season of okra and frogs, boiled crabs and hibiscus, of midsummer night dreams that are wild and sweet.
Up north, they tell you not to plant in the middle of summer. Don’t pay them any mind: July in Mobile is cooler and wetter than any other summer month and an ideal season for planting. Early in the month, start tomatoes and watermelons. Late in the month, start marigolds, petunias, nasturtiums, artichokes and other fall flowers and veggies. Trees and shrubs will also get a good start in July.
In a word: DON’T. It’s raining every day, and plants that don’t dry off are going to be highly susceptible to disease attack. Don’t water the lawn more than once or twice, and only if we’ve gone more than 5 days without an inch of rain, which is highly unlikely this time of year.
Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.
Text and photos by Bill Finch