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

Variegated Ginger in between bloom cycles

Variegated Ginger in between bloom cycles

Pruning of Variegated Ginger (Alpinia Zerumbet Variegata)

In an old blog post about foliage plants, Jennifer P. commented, telling me of her variegated ginger, and how tall it had grown. It was getting so tall it was blocking a view she enjoyed.

She asked the best way to prune it. I gave her a brief reply in the comment section of that post, and promised to publish more extensive information. That information is below, but first, a bit of important information about this plant and its required growing conditions.

There Are Several Reasons to Prune Variegated Ginger

Variegated ginger with flower buds ready to open

Variegated ginger with flower buds ready to open

1. When the Plant Grows Too Tall For Your Garden

This was the problem described by Jennifer. This evergreen plant can grow to 8 or 9 feet tall in Zones 9 – 11. Often it will become top heavy, and lean over onto other plants, or it may simply be taller than you would like. To achieve a shorter, more compact plant, remove the tallest canes at the ground. If additional canes need to be removed, cut others to the height desired, by cutting just above a leaf, as shown here.

2. After Freeze Damage

If you find leaves that are discolored around the edges with or without spotty damage, this is likely frost damage or damage caused by a light freeze. These leaves should be removed individually, leaving the cane which will grow new leaves.

On the other hand, if you find dark brown or black leaves with mushy canes, there is severe freeze damage. In this case, the entire cane should be removed at the ground.

In the photo below, you can see what a hard freeze in central Florida did to one of our gingers. The green parts were protected by being against the house and by being sheltered by the eaves of the house. I had to cut it back severely, but in a few months, the plant was back to this size and looking gorgeous.

Don’t worry. New canes will grow back quickly. Do wait a few days after a freeze before pruning, however, as it will take a few days for the full extent of the damage to appear. Remember that new canes don’t bloom until their second year.

Damage from a severe freeze in February, 2018. My plants were on their own that time, as I had a cold, and couldn't go out to cover them, and the hubby was out of town.

Damage from a severe freeze in February, 2018. My plants were on their own that time, as I had a cold, and couldn't go out to cover them, and the hubby was out of town.

3. After Damage From Drought

Alpinia needs a lot of water, so during a drought, be conscientious about caring for this plant, while complying with watering restrictions. After a drought, you may need to remove some brown leaves or leaves with a lot of brown spots.

If you are under severe water restrictions, save any unused coffee, tea, or water, and use it to water your plants. If rinsing out an empty milk carton, use that water on your plants – it’s a good source of calcium.

If you have to let the water run very long to get hot water, catch the cold water in a container, and use it to water the plants. It could also be used to dilute strong coffee or tea before using them on plants. We do this year-round, restrictions or not.

The brown leaf tips and spots typical of drought conditions

The brown leaf tips and spots typical of drought conditions

4. For Floral Arrangements

Alpinia canes take about two years to produce these gorgeous, pendulous, orchid-like flowers that provide a great addition to cut flower arrangements, as do the large green-and-yellow striped leaves.

Each cane blooms only once, then dies. The canes with flowers would be good ones to remove, but be sure to enjoy the flowers first. It is important to remove old canes after they have bloomed, because if they are not removed, the plant will eventually stop producing new canes. Removing old canes will encourage new healthy canes to emerge.

When cutting a portion of the blooming cane for a floral arrangement, this would be a good time to go ahead and remove that entire cane.

The tiny orchid-like flowers that also resemble seashells, hence the common name "shell ginger".

The tiny orchid-like flowers that also resemble seashells, hence the common name "shell ginger".

The flower buds hang like grapes until they burst open, revealing dozens of tiny orchid-like flowers.

The flower buds hang like grapes until they burst open, revealing dozens of tiny orchid-like flowers.

Alpinia zerumbet variegata is NOT drought tolerant.

— Maria

The reddish colored sheath covering the flower buds

The reddish colored sheath covering the flower buds

When to Prune

Remove freeze-damaged canes a few days after the freeze, allowing time for all damage to become apparent. Otherwise, always prune them after the blooming season has passed, in order to enjoy the gorgeous orchid-like flowers. Individual leaves that turn brown can often be removed by pinching them off with your hands.

How and Where to Cut

Be sure to cut on a fairly steep angle, because, if the cane stands straight up, and the cut gives it a flat top, this will allow water to sit on top of the cane, and gradually seep into the stem. That will cause rot, and invite disease and pests.

You can cut the tallest canes back to the ground, if you want, or you can cut them just above a leaf, at the desired height. Again, always take out the weakest canes, or any that may be turning yellow.

Sometimes the larger stems require loppers rather than small hand-held pruners.

Sometimes the larger stems require loppers rather than small hand-held pruners.

What to Use for Pruning Alpinia

As always, start with clean blades on your pruning shears or loppers. Some of the canes can be cut with the short, handheld pruners, but some of the older canes can be quite thick and fibrous, especially near the bottom. This may require the longer handled loppers that will give you more leverage.

I clean mine by spritzing them with 70% isopropyl alcohol (ordinary rubbing alcohol). I keep a small spray bottle handy and spray my pruners after each use.

Household bleach can be used for this purpose, but the tools should be soaked in it, and they are likely to rust. Beside, it will ruin your clothes or anything else it hits.

Want More Plants? Want to Share?

Dividing Alpinia

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 couple of years. To make handling easier, the 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 along with you when relocating. It is also fine to remove all canes, handling only the rhizomes.

Alpinia zerumbet variegata is NOT edible.

— Maria

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. I prefer no more than a few seconds. This requires having a new hole already dug and waiting, or having a pot with 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.

The Large, Gorgeous Leaves of Variegated Ginger

The leaves alone 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.

Close up of a large variegated ginger leaf

Close up of a large variegated ginger leaf

Is Alpinia Zerumbet Variegata Edible?

No. While it is closely related to the culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale), whose rhizomes we are all familiar with, Alpinia zerumbet variegata is NOT edible.

Sun vs. Shade:

Although it is said to be able to take full sun, 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. 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 above did not get.

The variegated ginger in this photo 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, and in full sun, and probably received very little water. The rocks complicated the problem, as they get terribly hot in the summer heat.

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.

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

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

Nutrient Requirements:

You can fertilize your variegated ginger monthly with a balanced fertilizer. I have never fertilized mine, but I do have them planted in rich, moist soil, and they are 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 ground around it.

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. 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 months.

Don't Expect Blooms Right Away

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

Growth Habits:

Alpina grows 8 to 9 feet tall in the mild climates of USDA Zones 9 - 11, where it is evergreen. At my former home, I was gardening in Zone 9a. I have seen it 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 9-11, variegated ginger will send up new growth quickly when killed back to the ground by freezing weather. Watch for light-reddish spears. New leaves will emerge from these light red “sleeves”.

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

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.

© 2021 MariaMontgomery

Your Comments Are Always Welcome

MariaMontgomery (author) from Coastal Alabama, USA on August 17, 2021:

So glad you enjoyed my article. I love those gorgeous plants, too.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 17, 2021:

Variegate ginger is such a pretty plant. Thank you for this comprehensive look at the care and growth patterns of these lovely shade lovers.

Your tips on the use of coffee grounds and milk water from the bottom of the jug are a bonus. I was aware of the practice, but you have now confirmed the benefits.

Excellent article, Maria!

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