Green Culture Singapore
Feature Article for April 2007
 
     
 
Pictures & Text by Wilson Wong
 
 
Edited by Lynnette Terh
 
     
 
Online on 7 May 2007
 

 

The butterfly ginger is a plant that deserves a place in any tropical themed outdoor garden. It is an unusual ginger that bears flowers that give off an overpowering, sweet fragrance. If you are looking for a plant to fill up that shady spot in your fragrant garden, the butterfly ginger is one suitable candidate. Unlike many tropical, fragrant flowering shrubs that require a location with full sun to grow and flower, the butterfly ginger, instead, thrives in such a location.

 

Three commonly seen butterfly gingers available in local nurseries.
From left to right: H. coronarium var. coronarium, H. coronarium var. chrysoleucum and an unidentified orange flowered Hedychium.

As the name suggests, the shape of the flowers of this ginger resembles that of a butterfly with its wings spread open. Butterfly gingers are botanically known as Hedychium coronarium and are, expectedly, members of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae and are native to the Himalayan region and southern China. The white butterfly ginger is the national flower of Cuba.


Above: A colony of butterfly gingers at the Singapore
Botanic Gardens.

Butterfly gingers are herbaceous plants that can grow up to a stately height of 2 m. The lush, olive green leaves, shaped like a long dagger are usually smooth on the upperside and may be very slightly hairy below. They are arranged on opposite sides of the stem and can grow up to 60 cm long and 10 cm wide. A dense clump of leafy shoots can result as they continuously rise from the rhizome that creeps on the ground surface. From afar, a colony of healthy butterfly gingers can be mistakened for a cornfield!

When a stem matures, an inflorescence that looks like a green cone with numerous overlapping scales, which are actually bracts, will appear at the end of the stem. Tube-like flower buds will then peek out from in between the scales, starting from the base of cone. The petals of the flowers subsequently unfurl, to release their heady perfume and the dark coloured stamen resembling a butterfly's antenna, is then displayed prominently. Unfortunately, the flowers only lasts a day. Upon successful pollination, an oval-shaped fruit will form. The fruit turns into a bright orange colour when ripe and will eventually split open to reveal seeds encapsulated inside bright, red flesh.

 

Left: The interesting looking inflorescence of the butterfly ginger.

Three different butterfly gingers have been spotted on sale in local nurseries. The most commonly seen species, H. coronarium var. coronarium, produces large, pure white flowers. Another butterfly ginger, which bears white flowers with an intense yellow spot on its lip is H. coronarium var. chrysoleucum. It is not to be confused with two other similar looking species, namely, H. flavescens (syn. H. coronarium var. flavescens) and H. flavum. The two latter species have flowers that have a similar yellow spot on the lip but their flowers are of a very pale yellow. There is a variety with peach coloured flowers that is occasionally available for sale but its identity is not known, which could well be a hybrid.


Above: The ripe fruit of the butterfly ginger splits open
to reveal the seeds that are covered in a red coloured aril.

In the garden, butterfly gingers are best grown in groups. In the tropics, they are perennials that will provide constant flushes of fragrant flowers. Butterfly gingers are all terrestrials and would prefer to be grown in well drained, fertile soil that is rich in organic matter. Water sufficiently to make the soil moist and the area where the butterfly ginger is grown should preferably be mulched to conserve moisture and keep the roots cool. Fertilise regularly with generous amounts of organic compost or organic fertiliser, which will help to condition the often encountered clayey soil we have here locally. After flowering, the entire spent inflorescence can be cut away. The still green stem can be left since it can still photosynthetise and provide food for the plant. Remove old stems when they start to turn yellow or when the clump appears to be overcrowded.

Left: A happy butterfly ginger should have dark green leaves that are open.
Right
: A sign of underwatering and overexposure to direct sunlight - curled and yellowing leaves.

In general, butterfly gingers appreciate a preferably shady and not too windy location. Constant air movement reduces air humidity can cause the plant to dry out quickly. Butterfly gingers should never be exposed to the much more intense, direct sunshine in the tropics for prolonged periods. Plants that have been dehydrated react by curling up their leaves and those that have receiving too much light will exhibit sickly-looking, yellow leaves. The leaves of the butterfly gingers can be attacked by grasshoppers and leaf rolling caterpillars.

Propagation of plants can be most easily achieved by division although seeds are also sometimes available. Lift up overcrowded clumps and split into sections with at least 3 to 4 shoots. Leaves may be trimmed away to reduce dehydration of the plant. Plant each section into a pot of soil and always take care not to bury the rhizome too deeply as that will induce rot. If the section is not stable, it may be necessary to prop it up using a stick. Once roots have developed, the support can be removed. Until then, it is prudent to keep the rhizome section in a cool, shady area.

 

 

Right: Clumps can be divided to give more plants.

 


The butterfly ginger has been used as a popular ornamental plant in the garden. Because the flowers are fragrant, it is not surprising that the flowers have found themselves being used to make perfumes, using the oil extracted from them. In tropical Hawaii, the flowers are also threaded to make leis or perched singly in a similar way like how Plumeria flowers are worn on the ear. The butterfly ginger's rhizome has numerous medicinal uses in traditional medicine for the treatment of tonsilitis, infected nostrils and fever. The leaves are also used to reduce pain and swelling in stiff and sore joints.

Its flower buds are actually edible and can be used like a vegetable. The flower buds are best picked early in the morning and stored in the refrigerator until they are ready to be used. The buds can be tossed in your salad for a spicy, gingery zest and intriguing, succulent texture. They can also be added to soups and stir-fried. The buds can also be infused in hot water, together with your Chinese tea leaves, add the unique butterfly ginger fragrance to your tea.

Right: The flower buds of the butterfly ginger can actually be eaten!


 



REFERENCES

Ibrahim, H., 2001. Hedychium coronarium J. König [Internet] Record from Proseabase. van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. and Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). PROSEA (Plant Resources of South-East Asia) Foundation, Bogor, Indonesia. http://www.proseanet.org. Accessed from Internet: 05-May-2007.

Shen, B. K. 2006. Jiang Hua Zhi Zai Pei Yu Peng Tiao. In: Gardening Friend. July-August Issue. Known-You Seed Co., Ltd, Taiwan. pp. 22 - 25. In Traditional Chinese.

 


 

 

 
 

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