A Gardening Journal

Blue Ginger

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Finally, one of the many buds of my colony of blue ginger has opened. But after months of, admittedly, stunning spikes of blue buds, the small flowers themselves don't add to the display. In fact, with that white petal at the bottom, they detract.

 

Notice that the outside of the white petal is as colorful as petals that are blue through and through. How much more exciting it would be if all the petals were white on one side, blue on the other. As the flowers slowly opened, the inflorescence would turn white at the bottom and, week by week, whiten up to the top.

 

 

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The closed buds are the better show, thank goodness, because they can be present for a couple of months before any of them opens into flowers.  The pointy-tongued things are modified leaves, poking out between buds. 

 

When the inflorescence is young, the leaves are green, and the comparatively small buds cluster tightly at their bases. 

 

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As the buds mature—not into flowers per se, but to mature buds—they increase in size, and deepen in color. The pointed leaves turn yellower, and are now able to extend only half their length beyond the buds.

 

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Additional buds can emerge from the tip of the inflorescence even as the oldest buds—formed months before—finally begin transforming into actual open flowers.

 

 

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Here's how to grow this easy, eccentric, and elegant tropical perennial: 

 

Latin Name

Dichorisandra thyrsiflora

Common Name

Blue ginger

Family

Commelinaceae, the Spiderwort family.

What kind of plant is it?

Tuberous evergreen perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 10 - 11. 

Habit

Cane-like stems emerge from the ground in dense clumps of nearly shrubby proportions and habit.  

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

Size is dependent on culture and climate. Individuals growing in-ground in dappled shade in a hot and frost-free climate, or when planted permanently in a conservatory bed, will grow faster and larger than those in containers, or growing in-ground in less congenial circumstances. Ultimately, four to five feet tall; clumps are usually taller than wide.

Texture

Full but not dense. The inflorescences are well displayed at the tips of the canes, with pleasing clearance from surrounding foliage.

Grown for

its vertical inflorescences of electric-blue buds. In climates where the temperatures are still warm during the Fall flowering season of Dichorisandra, the buds eventually open into three-petaled flowers. In the increasing coolness of a New England Fall, however—and then, at least in my frugally-heated greenhouse, the continued "chilly" nights of 50 degrees—few fully-open flowers ever develop. Buds on my colony begin appearing in September; nearly two months later, their "budness" still seems to be peaking, with scarcely any buds breaking rank to come out as actual flowers. Fortunately, the blue color of the buds is strikingly saturated, and the white inner surface of each flower's lowest petal, revealed only upon opening, is somewhat of a distraction. A buds-only display is both enduring and more conceptually streamlined. 

 

its coloristic rarity: In any climate, blue is always one of the less common colors. It would be unheard of for any garden to have too much blue, even if you were to work tirelessly to that goal. By comparison, a red garden—in itself, a dauntingly high mountain to climb—is a snap. The color of Dichorisandra buds and flowers is often difficult to capture in photographs; many shots you'll come across on-line are skewed to violet and even purple. The flowers are a thrilling true blue. 

its easy-going nature: Provide dappled shade, good soil, enough water, and a long and warm growing season, and you'll be assured of months of Fall color.

Flowering season

Fall. My colony has been in bud by September, but even in late November (by which time the pot has already been in the greenhouse for several weeks), actual flowers have just barely started to appear. 

Color combinations

Other shades of blue pale in comparison; combine this intense beauty with colors that are contrasting, not collateral. The narrow yellow-green leaflets protruding between the buds, let alone the yellow of the sexual parts of the flowers, are your cues for other yellows. Because the lone white petal of opened flowers creates a bicolor effect, almost any other congenial contrastor—burgundy, say—would be too lively. Yellow and white, then, are your best options. 

Plant partners

Bring in other plants that celebrate the surprisingly narrow range of color options for Dichorisandra—yellow and white—with foliage more than flowers. Go for much larger leaves, in simple shapes, which will make the Dichorisandra foliage seem more and more grassy in comparison. The huge chartreuse leaves of Xanthosoma 'Lime Zinger' would be ideal, as would that of Philodendron 'Moonlight'; both thrive in the dappled sun and heat that Dichorisandra prefers.

 

Few plants whose talents are exclusively floral could compete with Dichorisandra. Chinese banana is a welcome exception. Some season, I'll manage to bring my clump of Ensete lasiocarpum into flower again. Its blue-green banana leaves provide good textural contrast, but its incredible yellow-bracted inflorescence—the size of a lotus blossom, but unfolding for many months, not just three days—would equal the display of Dichorisandra in drama as well as eccentricity.

Where to use it in your garden

Outside of the subtropics and tropics, where blue ginger could be used as background filler or even as an herbaceous hedge, Dichorisandra is grown in a container. Growth from dormant tubers isn't fast enough for this species to be planted directly into garden beds, as you'd do with, say, dahlias or cannas. Plus, without buds, let alone flowers, the developing canes are only modestly interesting. All the more reason, then, to grow Dichorisandra in a container, so in Spring and Summer the colony can burgeon vegetatively somewhere less prominent. Move the containered colony to a focal position when the display of buds and flowers begins in Fall.

Culture

This tropical beauty prefers dappled sun even in the comparatively weak light of a New England summer, plus warmth and rich, moist soil. See "How to handle it" for tactics to please this plant even when you're not growing it in the Brazilian tropics it prefers.

How to handle it: The Basics.

When growing in-ground in a warm and frost-free climate, plant in Spring. After flowering trails off in Fall, groom the colony to remove spent stems and make room for the new ones that appear in Spring. Divide every year or so, in early Spring. Retain only the most vigorous peripheral portion, so as to provide plenty of opportunity for the newly-planted colony to produce the canes that, in turn, will develop the showy spikes of flowers.   

How to handle: Another option—or two!

Because the inflorescences are borne at the tips of canes that have been growing all Summer, Dichorisandra thyrsiflora appreciates being kept in active and happy growth Spring through Fall. Insufficient water can cause the tips of the pointed leaves to brown, which detracts mightily from the display of buds and flowers. There's a real downside, then, to growing blue ginger in circumstances where its roots feel crowded.

 

The advantage of displaying a container-grown Dichorisandra—you need give it primo real estate only when it's in bud and bloom—is countered by the greater challenge, container versus garden bed, of ensuring that any steadily-growing plant has plenty of water and root-room not just at the beginning of a long growing season, but right through until the end of it. Each Spring or late Winter, unpot and divide established clumps when growth resumes, with the goal of retaining only a critical mass (about as large as a gallon jug) of the most vigorous peripheral tuberous roots. Replant that root mass in a larger-than-you'd-think-you-need container—even a ten-gallon pot isn't too big—such that the Dichorisandra division is at the center of a generous periphery of fresh soil for the new clump's roots to expand into. Unless you need to increase your number of Dichorisandra clumps, or you have friends who need your extra portions, you'll be composting much of your original colony each Spring.

 

After flowering is through, reduce watering, allowing the clumps to rest for the Winter. Foliage may brown and, if you can provide temperatures in the fifties at night, entire canes can fade. Even so, the clumps don't usually die to the ground as do dahlias. Nor do last season's canes automatically die after flowering, as do true gingers such as Hedychium; Dichorisandra canes can send out side-branches and, so, produce a second crop of flowers. As increasing day length becomes noticeable (in February, for me here in New England), new canes will emerge. This is the time to clip off the last of the canes that have decided to retire completely, as well as divide the clump to give it the fresh soil needed for the unstinting growth needed for a full display by Fall. As the clump continues to revive in late Winter and early Spring, provide all possible heat; if you're overwintering Dichorisandra in the watery-by-definition light of a hoop-house, provide all possible light, too. Place the colony outdoors, in a location with dappled light, only after warm weather has truly settled in.  

Quirks and special cases

Blue ginger is the rare plant that looks even better in bud than in bloom. 

Downsides

Although the Fall flowering is a thrill, it's a long wait if your garden is aiming (as is mine) for an August and September peak. Dichorisandra thyrsiflora is just coming into bud as the pot is being brought back into the greenhouse. Blue ginger would be a sensational plant growing in-ground in the milder climates it prefers, or in a grand conservatory. For me, Dichorisandra at its prime is a private display, in my hoop-house that, each Winter, is crammed even closer to the point of inaccessibility.

Variants

Even the vendors of Dichorisandra thyrsiflora 'Variegata'—who would be expected to enthuse, well, enthusiastically about their plants—say its variegation is faint, and strongly dependent on culture. Don't bother. Graceful pendulous racemes of flowers of Dichorisandra penduliflora can appear year-round. The overall intensity of the floral display is much less than that of D. thyrsiflora, but if you can provide the warmth this plant appreciates, you can enjoy its flowers almost year-round, not just for the Fall months. This species is on my wish list.

Availability

On-line as well as at retailers.

Propagation

By division of the clump and by stem cuttings; the plant does not appear to set viable seed. 

Native habitat

Dichorisandra thyrsiflora is native to Brazil.

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