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Growing Variegated Ginger

Maria is a master gardener and master of public health. She & her husband, known online as The Gardener & The Cook, live in coastal Alabama.

The shell-like flower of Variegated ginger

The shell-like flower of Variegated ginger

A popular herbaceous perennial in central and south Florida, extreme south Alabama, and other warm climates is variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet variegata). Grown primarily for it's beautiful foliage in shades of green, yellow, cream, and sometimes dark red, it blooms in spring.

The clusters of flower buds first emerge shaped like spears, then separate to hang like grapes, then they open, revealing tiny flowers that resemble orchids. They are also said to resemble sea shells, and because of this, many people call the plant "shell ginger".

Native to Asia, Alpinia is hardy in Zones 8b through 10. This tropical plant is one of the most popular foliage plants in warm climates. Those who love it, eagerly await the delicate flowers every spring.

Variegated Ginger is NOT Edible

Note: Alpinia zerumbet variegata is closely related to the culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale), whose rhizomes we can see at any grocery store, but Alpinia zerumbet variegata is NOT edible.

Alpinia's Requirements

Nutrients

You can fertilize your variegated ginger monthly with a balanced fertilizer. I grew this plant when we lived in central Florida. I never fertilized mine, but I did have them planted in rich, moist soil, and they were beautiful.

“Balanced” means all three numbers should be the same, for example 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. If your Alpinia is in a pot, you can use a liquid plant food, or dilute a water-soluble granular fertilizer to half-strength. Using hot or warm water will help to dissolve the granules, but take care not to pour hot water onto your plant or the soil around it.

Water

It requires rich, moist, but well-drained soil. It is NOT drought-tolerant, so it requires frequent watering, especially if planted in full sun. Full sun stresses the plant, and increases the need for water.

Soil

Alpinia should be planted in rich, moist, well-drained soil.

Light

Although it can take some sun, variegated ginger does best in, at least, partial shade, protected from the harsh afternoon sun. Please do not plant it in an area where you have used rocks instead of mulch.

A healthy red variegated ginger. They will stay like this if not planted in full sun, or in rocks.

A healthy red variegated ginger. They will stay like this if not planted in full sun, or in rocks.

Sun vs. Shade

Although it is said to be able to take full sun (which is defined as six hours or more) variegated ginger does best with only morning sun. It prefers full shade, but can take dappled light in the afternoons. It requires rich, moist soil.

Again, it is NOT drought-tolerant, so it requires frequent watering, especially if planted in the sun. Full sun stresses the plant, and requires a lot of water. As you can guess, the one in the photo below did not get much water.

The variegated ginger in the photo below was in the yard of a corner lot that I had to pass any time I went anywhere from my former home in central Florida. When planted, it was fairly large.

Unfortunately, it was planted in rocks, in full sun, and probably received very little water. The rocks complicated the problem, as they get terribly hot in the summer heat, and their weight eventually leads to soil compaction.

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That ginger plant didn’t last long, and was replaced with a hosta, which also needs full shade or morning sun. The hosta quickly became pretty scrawny. It, too, soon died.

This is a red variegated ginger planted in full sun, and in rocks that become scorchingly hot in the summer sun.

This is a red variegated ginger planted in full sun, and in rocks that become scorchingly hot in the summer sun.

More About Fertilizers

If You Are in Areas With Soil High in Phosphorous

About that balanced fertilizer: if you are in central Florida, you may need a fertilizer with a lower percentage of phosphorous (the middle number) because the sandy soil there has a high content of phosphorous. There are phosphorous mines in the area, plus a lot leaches into the soil from all the block-and-stucco homes in the many over-built areas.

Liquid vs. Granular Fertilizer

Using liquid fertilizer on plants that are in the ground can be a waste of time and money. Rain and irrigation will simply wash the liquid deeper into the soil, out of reach of the plant’s roots. This is especially true for sandy soils. Granular fertilizer, on the other hand, is placed on and in the top one inch of soil, and dissolves gradually with each rain or watering. Most granular fertilizers will continue to feed your plants for about three to six months.

Don’t Expect Blooms Right Away

Always read the instructions on the package of fertilizers, as strengths will vary between brands. Do not expect blooms right away. New growth, as well as newly planted rhizomes of variegated ginger will bloom in the second year.

Growth Habits

Alpinia can grow up to 9 feet tall in the mild climates of USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 9 to 11, where it stays beautiful almost year ’round. At my former home, I was gardening in Zone 9a. I have seen this plant growing here in Zone 8b, but I haven’t tried it myself.

The leaves will either be killed off or damaged by frost. The canes will die in extended periods of cold weather but, unless you have a severe and prolonged freeze, the roots will not die.

In Zones 9 through11, variegated ginger will send up new growth quickly when killed back to the ground by freezing weather. We call this “returning from the roots”. Watch for new growth to appear as light-reddish spears. New leaves will emerge from these light red “sleeves”.

Growth Habits

Alpinia can grow up to 9 feet tall in the mild climates of USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 9 to 11, where it stays beautiful year ’round. At my former home, I was gardening in Zone 9a. I have seen this plant growing here in Zone 8b, but I haven’t tried it myself.

The leaves will either be killed off or damaged by frost. The canes will die in extended periods of cold weather but, unless you have a severe and prolonged freeze, the roots will not die.

In Zones 9 through11, variegated ginger will send up new growth quickly when killed back to the ground by freezing weather. Watch for new growth to appear as light-reddish spears. New leaves will emerge from these light red “sleeves”.

This plant is grown mostly for its gorgeous foliage.

This plant is grown mostly for its gorgeous foliage.

The Large, Gorgeous Leaves of Variegated Ginger

The leaves on this plant will add interest and a tropical flavor to your garden. The flowers are serendipity — "icing on the cake". Proper care will ensure that Alpinia brings you pleasure for years to come. For information on pruning your variegated ginger, check out my article How to Prune Variegated Ginger.

Here you see the flower buds hanging like grapes, and almost ready to open.

Here you see the flower buds hanging like grapes, and almost ready to open.

About Those Flowers

New leaf stalks will flower in their second year. After blooming, the stalk will not bloom again, but new stalks will quickly grow in to replace the older ones. It is fine to remove the older stalks after the flower petals have wilted and fallen off, but if the leaves still look healthy, they can be left in place until they turn brown.

In the photo below, the tiny spears of new stalks can be seen.

The tiny new leaf buds emerging among older canes in my former garden

The tiny new leaf buds emerging among older canes in my former garden

When and How to Divide Alpinia

I always say, the more plants and flowers, the better, and this plant is easy to divide. Variegated ginger is a vigorous plant; its clumps will spread up to 8 feet in diameter. If your garden is small, Alpinia will need to be divided every two to three years. These make great pass-along plants. Dividing them is also an easy way to establish them in more areas of your garden.

To make handling easier, the older/larger canes can be pruned off at the ground. I prefer to leave the young, healthy canes in place, as they are the next ones to bloom.

It is fine, however, to remove them when dividing the plants, leaving only the very young new shoots. This is especially helpful if taking them with you when relocating. It is also fine to remove all canes, handling only the rhizomes.

When Dividing Alpinia, Have a New Home Ready and Waiting

As with any plant, do not allow the roots or rhizomes to be exposed to air for any longer than absolutely necessary. The absolute limit is no more than five minutes, but I prefer no more than a few seconds.

This requires having a new hole already dug and waiting, or having a pot with water or moist soil inside, ready and waiting to receive the newly divided plant.

Water well and often, and soon you will see new your plant send up new those pretty light-red spears that will open to reveal large yellow-and-green striped leaves.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 MariaMontgomery

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