As the rains intensify during the last months of the year and growing vegetables becomes a real challenge, gardeners in Costa Rica can turn their attention to tending and planting hardy ornamentals around the home. Tropical ornamental plants can transform any home into a virtual palace. I’ve seen the humblest abodes crowned with the majestic artwork of nature.
One favorite is torch ginger (Phaeomeria speciosa), or bastón del emperador, as it’s known in Spanish. This flamboyant member of the ginger family has a surreal flower that catches anyone’s eye at first sight. Its pinecone flowers are in big demand for commercial flower arrangements, and, of course, having your own for home floral arrangements is the cat’s meow. These flowers also last for many days without fading, and are hardy ornamentals that are easy to grow.
Leading nurseries around the country offer young torch ginger plants in containers. On the other hand, you can scout around to find a neighbor who will “regalar un hijo,” or make a gift of a tuber or young offshoot for planting. It’s one of the nicest ways to interact with the neighbors. Of course, it’s nice to reciprocate and offer a gift or special ornamental from your own collection.
Torch ginger is really easy to propagate. The root system of the plant is divided to create new “clones” for planting. The large, ginger-like roots (actually called tubers or rhizomes) are then planted superficially in the soil to form a new plant.
Take heed when planting a torch ginger tuber or young plant. They grow into formidable stands of foliage with large stems up to 3 meters tall, and they like to spread out over the years. Gardeners have learned to trick the plants by creating a container wall around them, much like a bonsai tree. A contained area of 1 to 2 square meters will keep a torch ginger plant within reasonable bounds.
With shiny green leaves and striking flowers on 1-meter stems, these plants are great for creating that tropical effect of lush foliage. Torch ginger grows particularly well in partial shade and in fertile, moist soil. They rate well on the eco-friendly scale too, provided you let them go dormant during the dry season; to keep them lush and blooming all year simply requires too much watering in the dry season. The old, dry stems can be pruned back and composted, and when the rains return, new stems will spring up for the new year. These plants are very hardy, and insect problems are rare. A yearly application of organic fertilizer will keep them growing vigorously.