Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

Back to Garden Writing


'Costus cuspidatus''
Click the image to see a more detailed photo


'Costus speciosus''
Click the image to see a more detailed photo


'Costus barbatus''


'Costus spicatus''
Click the image to see a more detailed photo

 

Costus Gingers

One of the joys of gardening is trying out new and unusual plants.
For me the ginger family is a fascinating and beautiful group of plants that embody all the allure of the tropics with their exotically perfumed, strange and extravagant, orchid-like flowers above lushly layered big leaves.
Some gardeners are a tad shocked that I love growing gingers in a region where ginger is deservedly a dirty word. I hasten to point out that of the thousands of types of ginger in the world, only two (resigned exasperation!) are classed as weeds here. To lump all gingers together as weeds is as nonsensical as saying that because gorse is a weed, all members of the equally huge pea family are weeds. Imagine banning kowhai, silk tree, Acacia, Cassia, Calliandra, peas and beans!
The Costus gingers, sometimes known as Spiral Gingers, have always seemed too tropical to be worth trying outdoors here but after seeing them in the amazing Singapore Botanic Gardens recently, I just had to give them a go.
Great excitement today in my hothouse. The long-awaited first flower on my new Spiral Ginger plant.
A friend who is an avid collector of gingers gave me a tiny piece of this one, saying I can't remember the name, but I think its an orange one. As it turned out, to my delight today, it has a dark red cone-like flower head with a series of delicate white 6cm flowers opening from under each scale of the cone. So I have realised it is Costus speciosus, the Crepe Ginger from the Malay peninsula and it grows about 1.5m to 2m high with soft, lush, 20cm leaves arranged spirally around each fleshy stem. It is a shade-lover, growing under trees in the wild. In full sun here I suspect the leaves would scorch. The exquisite white flowers look like crepe paper and are extremely delicate.
I am hoping it will grow outdoors, at least in a sheltered courtyard. Its supposed to be the hardiest of all the Costus family so I hope my hope is justified!
I suspect it might die down in Winter if its too cold but come up again in Spring from the roots if it doesnt get too wet. Maybe that is a tall order in this climate where Winters are usually so sodden.
In the tropics though, it is evergreen, flowering all year.
I have planted one outdoors as a sacrificial trial to see how it handles next Winter.
Spiral gingers are already grown in NZ as hothouse plants by a few specialist growers but I reckon if I can manage to grow frangipani, I should be able to grow this beauty. Watch this space.
Another little garden exitement that is doing well for me so far outdoors this Summer is Costus cuspidatus, the "Fiery Costus", a low-growing clumping plant about 30cm high with velvety oval leaves on short, fleshy stems. The fragile, papery flowers are a brilliant orange and it seems to flower almost all the time as long as it is warm and shaded. I notice that if I water the plant from above while its in bloom, the flowers literally dissolve, leaving an orange stain on the leaves below!
This lovely plant thrives in a pot indoors and the spiralled, oval leaves are softly furry like thick velvet. In a sheltered courtyard the fiery ginger would be an attractive tub plant under taller plants, and I'm also hoping it will cope with Winter in the ground if I give it a mound of sandy soil among rocks to help hold the heat around the roots.
For some gardeners, growing the perfect rose is their passion, but mine is the thrill of finding and learning how to grow another beautiful plant to add its magic to my garden.

(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2006)