Red Emperor ginger: Spellbinding

Published 6:00 am Sunday, June 28, 2009

Red Emperor ginger is one of those plants people treasure even if it never blooms. I did not know much about this plant but received a cluster of them from my daughter, who had been using them as a thriller plant in a mixed container for a special event.

I put them on our patio and enjoyed them until cold weather arrived. I then stored them in the garage, paying little attention to them. In fact, it was late spring last year when I noticed shoots sprouting from the poor, neglected pot. In May I planted them in the landscape and watched them grow into the most beautiful plants with dark red stems and petioles.

My wife took a small clump and put them in horrid soil that received western sun, which is normally the kiss of death for a ginger. I also left a smaller clump in a 6-inch container in a shady location in the garden. I had every intention of planting it elsewhere in the garden but never did.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

After a very cold winter, I figured the Red Emperor was graveyard dead, especially because my bananas and other gingers were already starting their spring routine.

The ginger planted in the cement-like soil with western sun was the first to show up. Even the planting left in the 6-inch container survived the winter. Then I noticed something happening in the backyard: blooms. Before I knew it, my clump had seven incredible blooms. The blooms are formed by a cluster or cone of bracts. The top portion is iridescent purple with white on the bottom. The true flowers are yellow, giving this exotic bloom real eye-catching interest.

After realizing the true potential of this wonderful ginger, I have moved my wife’s planting and the one in the 6-inch container to more suitable spots in the landscape.

The blooms have remained for more than a month, and the leaves have emerged and are growing rapidly. The Red Emperor leaves are borne upright and look so picturesque with their red stripes right down the middles.

Botanically speaking, Red Emperor is a ginger known as a curcuma. It is one that looks good in the landscape until cold weather and then goes through a dormant period. Those of us in zones 7b and higher can relish in its beauty in the landscape, as long as the soil is fertile and well drained. A good layer of mulch will provide extra winter insulation.

Those living in colder areas can still enjoy Red Emperor as the thriller plant in mixed containers. The containers should be placed in a frost-free area during the winter, or the rhizomes can be dug and stored. The blooms will probably be sparse in these situations, but remember the plants are beautiful even without blooms.

For a tropical, lush-looking landscape, combine Red Emperor with blue-foliaged hostas such as Elegans. It also works well with lime green hostas, such as Sun and Substance. They also complement ferns or clusters of bananas. At my home, I planted them near a papaya tree and another ginger species.

Gingers can be addicting. Once you start growing them, they’ll make you feel like you are on an island getaway.