Spring Pruning of Variegated Ginger
(Alpinia Zerumbet Variegata)
On my post about foliage plants, Jennifer P. commented, telling me of her variegated ginger, and how tall it has grown. 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 about this plant and its required growing conditions:
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.
This once-large variegated ginger was planted in rocks, in full sun, and probably received very little water. It is no longer there.
Sun vs. Shade:
Although it can take full sun, variegated ginger does best in, at least, partial shade; it requires rich, moist soil. It is NOT drought-tolerant, so it requires frequent watering, especially if planted in full sun. Full sun stresses the plant, and requires a lot of water.
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. 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. Always read the instructions on the package, as strengths will vary between brands. Do not expect blooms right away. New growth, as well as newly planted rhizomes will bloom in the second year.
Alpina grows 8 to 9 feet tall in the mild climates of USDA Zones 9 – 11, where it is evergreen. I am gardening in Zone 9-A. The leaves will be killed off by frost; the canes will die in extended periods of cold weather. In these 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”.
There Are Several Reasons to Prune Variegated Ginger:
1. When the plant grows too tall for your garden:
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 like these, 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. Don’t worry. New canes will grow back quickly. Do wait a few days after a freeze before pruning, however, to see the full extent of the damage. Remember that new canes don’t bloom until their second year.
3. After damage from drought conditions:
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. I do this year-round, restrictions or not.
4. For floral arrangements:
Alpinia’s pendulous orchid-like flowers provide a great addition to cut flower arrangements, as do the large green-and-yellow striped leaves. Each cane blooms only once, then dies. These canes would be good ones to remove, but be sure to enjoy the tiny 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 encourages 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.
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 with your hands.
How and Where to Cut:
Here, loppers are being used to cut the thick cane just above a healthy leaf.
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.
What to Use:
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.
Want More Plants? Want to Share?
Variegated ginger is a vigorous plant; its clumps will spread up to 8 feet in diameter. If your garden is small, Alpina 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, leaving only the very young new shoots. This is especially helpful if taking them along when relocating. It is also fine to remove all canes, handling only the rhizomes.
When Dividing Alpina, Have a New Home Ready and Waiting
As with any plant, do not allow the roots/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 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 Alpina brings you pleasure for years to come.