Many gardeners transplanted to the Deep South strive valiantly to grow hostas. They grew them in gardens farther north where they made a stunning groundcover in shady areas. While a few gardeners have found a limited number of hostas that can survive in the coastal South, they seldom achieve the vigor achieved by those grown in more northerly climes.
For those who want the look of hosta without all the fuss, some substitutes can give a very similar look in the landscape. One hosta substitute is the diminutive peacock ginger (Kaempferia), which is easier to grow in the Deep South than some of the less heat-tolerant hostas. The peacock ginger has been called the "hosta" of the Deep South.
Members of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, the peacock gingers grow from small globular rhizomes with fleshy roots. Flowers in some species emerge in early spring just before the leaves appear, but in others they emerge along with or after the leaves and continue to flower all summer. Experts disagree as to the number of species, but all agree that some have not even yet been found, much less named. Yet, plenty are available at nurseries to satisfy even serious collectors. The Pacific Bulb Society website lists several species and cultivars. After reading their descriptions, it is obvious that much confusion exists as to the correct identity of some of them.
Kaempferia pulcra (possibly a synonym of K. elegans) is the most familiar species of the genus. Leaves in most cultivars hug the ground and look similar to a jeweled prayer plant. Markings may be interesting patterns of lavender or purple and white or silver, and texture may be pleated or smooth. Rarely exceeding 8-10 inches tall, this ginger grows into a beautiful ground cover for shady areas.
Several cultivars are available, each one different from the others. Kaempferia pulcra ‘Bronze Peacock' (bronze peacock ginger) has bronze-colored leaves with a satiny sheen. Flowers are lavender with a white center and are produced throughout the summer and fall. From Thailand, this cultivar is very tolerant of heat and humidity but is not one of the most cold-tolerant selections. K. pulchra ‘Silver Spot’, an elaborately patterned selection with leaves of silver, bronze, and green, grows well in deep shade.
Growing Peacock Gingers
Peacock gingers require almost full shade and moist, well-drained soil. They grow well and decorate their space all summer long but die down at the first hint of frost. In spring they will reappear in areas where they are hardy.
Peacock gingers are available at most nurseries and can be bought in gallon containers ready to plant in the garden. Once established, digging and dividing clumps provides a handy means of propagation. If dug when dormant, the rhizomes can easily be cut into pieces and replanted. Plant the rhizomes about half an inch deep. Lay them flat with the old stem scars facing upward.
Heat and humidity pose no problem for peacock ginger, which is native to southeast Asia and is hardy in Zones 8-11. Plant it for an interesting summer groundcover, or grow it in containers on shady patios and porches. Peacock ginger can even be grown indoors in a container near a bright window.
Gardeners in the South grow several genera from the Zingiberaceae family. Some of the most recognizable are the butterfly gingers (Hedychium), dancing girl gingers (Globba), hidden gingers (Curcuma), pinecone gingers (Zingiber), and shell gingers (Alpinia). The spiral ginger (Costus) and blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora) are sometimes thought to belong to the ginger family. The spiral ginger, however, belongs to the Costaceae (Costus) family, and the blue ginger is a member of the Commelinaceae (spiderwort) family. The native gingers (Asarum and Hexastylis) are members of the Aristolochiaceae (pipevine) family.
Gardeners in the Deep South are encouraged to try peacock gingers in their gardens. Although, in my experience, all have not proven garden worthy, the ones that have thrived are a very welcome and prized addition to my garden. They make the ones that failed worth all the effort it took to find the good ones.
Thanks to the following DG photographers for their photographs: K. roscoeana by Artcons, K. pulchra by justmeLisa, and the thumbnail 'Jungle Gold' by Kel.
Serving as a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener immerses me in gardening/teaching activities. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at www.mariesgardenanddesign.com.