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Hardy Gingers for the Food Forest Understory


Turmeric (Curcuma longa) can handle 5°F/-15°C. The rhizomes make a great tea and are
wonderful shredded into stir-frys or cooked with rice.

When I visit tropical and subtropical forest gardens I often see ginger, turmeric, galangal, and cardamom in the understory, beneath and between the fruit trees. In fact, according to P.K. Nair’s fantastic Tropical Homegardens, ginger and turmeric are universally found in tropical homegardens (ancient, traditional food forests) around the world.

I was thus very excited the day my copy of T.M.E. Branney’s Hardy Gingers arrived in the mail. This book profiles perhaps 100 members of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) and the related Costaceae. How nice to learn that many, many gingers can handle some cold, and are grown by gardeners in the US and UK as ornamentals.

Hardy Gingers also lists uses for many of these species. I went further and cross-referenced with Kunkel’s Plants for Human Consumption (listing 18,000 edible plants) and Mansfeld’s Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops (6,000 cultivated crops) and came up with a list of edible gingers for temperate climates.


Zedoary (Curcuma zedoaria) is grown for starch, extracted from the roots. The spicy shoots,
leaves, flower spikes, and leaves are also used. Hardy to 5F/-15C.

I garden in USDA zone 6 (-10°F, -23°C), and have a protected area for more tender species. Last year I planted three edible hardy gingers there: mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga), with edible shoots and roots; butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium), with beautiful edible flowers; and zedoary (Curcuma zedoaria), a species of which almost every part is used as a spice. Currently I’m waiting for the snow to melt to see which ones survived. Plant Delights nursery taught me that you have to personally kill something three times before you know it won’t grow for you, so I’m on my way.


Mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga) has edible shoots, leaves, flower spikes, and rhizomes.
This is the winner at -10°F/-23°C. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

The uses of these crops fall into several categories:

  • Rhizomes. These are spicy roots used like ginger, turmeric, and galangal.
  • Starch. Some Curcuma roots are cultivated for extraction of starch (like Queensland arrowroot or kudzu).
  • Shoots. Eaten like asparagus. This is a major use of true ginger and mioga ginger.
  • Leaf. Some are used to wrap foods while cooking to add flavor, others are directly used as a spice.
  • Flower spikes. Eaten as a spicy vegetable.
  • Flowers. Edible spicy flowers.
  • Bulbils. Small spicy roots that grow on the flower head of Globba species.
  • Fruits, seeds. These are used like cardamom.


True ginger (Zingiber officinale) is the most important member of the family, with
edible rhizomes and shoots. Ginger can handle 15°F/-9°C.

Food foresters in warm (and cool) temperate climates might be interested in planting members of this useful and ornamental family of plants in their understory. Many hardy gingers are quite shade tolerant. The table below presents the results of my cross-indexing of Hardy Gingers with Kunkel and Mansfeld. You’ll notice that turmeric, galangal, and even true ginger grow beyond the subtropics. Pick up a copy of Hardy Gingers to learn more about cultivating this interesting group of plants.

Latin Name

USDA Zone

Minimum Temp.

Light

Edible Uses

Alpinia caerulea

8

20 F/-6 C

sun

fruit, root tips, leaves, flowers

A. galanga

7

10 F/ -12C

part shade

cultivated galangal: for roots, flowers, spicy fruits, leaves

A. japonica

7

10 F/-12C

part shade

fruits

A. nutans

8

15 F/ -9C

part to shade

fruits like cardamom

A. zerumbet

7

0 F/ -17C

sun to part

leaves as food wrapper, shoot tips, rhizomes, flowers

Amomum dealbatum

8

15 F/-9C

part shade

seeds, flower spikes

A. subulatum

8

15 F/-9C

part to shade

seed pods cultivated as bblack cardamomb

Bosenbergia rotunda

8

15 F/-9C

shade

cultivated for spicy roots, also shoots and leaves

Costus speciosus

7

0 F/-17C

part shade

shoots edible, rhizome

C. spiralis

9

25 F/ -3F

part shade

young leaves

Curcuma alismatifolia

8

15 F/-9C

sun to part

flowers

C. amada

9

20 F/-6 C

sun to part

rhizomes, cultivated

C. angustifolia

8

15 F/-9C

sun to part

cultivated for starch extracted from rhizomes, also flower spikes

C. aromatica

7

10 F/-12C

sun to part

starch extracted from rhizomes

C. aurantiaca

9

22 F/ -5C

sun to part

young flower spikes

C. longa

7

5 F/ -15C

sun to part

cultivated turmeric, rhizomes used fresh or dried, young shoots, leaves

C. petiolata

7

5 F/-15C

sun to part

used as a spice

C. rubescens

7

5 F/-15C

sun to part

starch extracted from rhizomes

C. zedoaria

7

5 F/-15C

sun to part

cultivated for starch extracted from rhizomes, also shoot hearts, flower spikes, leaves, young rhizomes eaten

Globba globulifera

9

20 F/-6 C

part to shade

spicy aerial bulbils

G. racemosa

8

15 F/-9C

part to shade

spicy aerial bulbils

G. schambergkii

8

15 F/-9C

part to shade

spicy aerial bulbils

Hedychium coronarium

7

5 F/-15C

sun to part

flowers and flowerbuds

H. gracile

8

15 F/-9C

part shade

used as a spice

H. spicatum

7

5 F/-15C

part shade

fruits, dried rhizome

Kaempferia galanga

8

15 F/-9C

part to shade

cultivated for leaves, rhizome

K. rotunda

8

15 F/-9C

part to shade

cultivated for leaves, rhizome, shoots

Zingiber cassumunar

8

15 F/-9C

part shade

flower spikes, rhizome

Z. mioga

6

-10 F/ -23C

part to shade

cultivated for shoots, also rhizome, leaves, flower spikes

Z. officinale

8

15 F/-9C

sun to part

cultivated ginger, rhizome and shoots

Z. rubens

7

10 F/-12C

part shade

seedpods

Z. spectabile

9

20 F/-6 C

part shade

flavoring

Z. zerumbet

8

15 F/-9C

part shade

rhizomes, shoots

Here are a few sources for hardy gingers:

These are all in the UK or USA. Please post more sources for hardy gingers in the comments!

Eric Toensmeier

Eric Toensmeier is the award-winning author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables, and the co-author of Edible Forest Gardens. He is an appointed lecturer at Yale University, a Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown, and an international trainer. Eric presents in English, Spanish, and botanical Latin throughout the Americas and beyond. He has studied useful perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over two decades. Eric has owned a seed company, managed an urban farm that leased parcels to Hispanic and refugee growers, and provided planning and business trainings to farmers. He is the author of The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security released in February 2016.

13 Comments

  1. Wow – thank you for this Eric! In true plant geek fashion: thoroughly documented, great pics, engaging story line, and plenty of helpful tidbits. Almost through Paradise Lot (for those of you who don’t have that book by Eric yet, it’s an urban Permaculture “must have”) and Perennial Vegetables. So happy to see your contributions here! I hope you’ll update us with which species grows well for you in the NE US and any ideas for what others species it would play nicely with in a NE US guild.

  2. Thank you! You have answered one of my open questions. I have been wanting to grow my own ginger but live in Zone 6. I was looking for close cousins that might work. Thank you for doing the homework and sharing!!

  3. Thank you Eric for this article. I’ve been wondering if I could grow turmeric on the East coast since returning from the Big Island. Now I need to find some sources for it and some of the others you have mentioned.

  4. I’ve ginger growing in my greenhouse as I assumed it was a tropical/sub tropical only and I’m in cold zone 9b in Victoria Australia. Even though the rest of town sees a few mornings below zero we say -7C in our first winter here as we’re down in a valley. I have an area where I think I can grow ginger outside along with some turmeric and galangal so I am stoked. Brilliant article and thankyou thankyou thanyou!

  5. Thanks for the article which is very engaging with lots of useful information. I noted in a plant catalogue the other day that Turmeric was locally available and rated as cold hardy. You’ve inspired me to obtain it and plant some here. I’d be interested to hear the results of your snow trial! Fortunately, it isn’t quite that cold here… Thanks again.

  6. I tried, and failed, with turmeric, ginger, and arrowroot in a zone 8 site in GA. Hedychium coronarium survived. I am surprised at this article, needless to say. Perhaps there are different provenances? I’ve also thought that because most of these gingers are from monsoon climates (summer wet, winter dry), that having wet soil around the roots in the winter may be as much a problem for them as the actual cold….

  7. We are aiming to grow about 30lb of turmeric (curcuma longa) in New Brunswick, Canada (near Saint John). We have grown ginger (zingiber officinale) and there are people successfully growing small commercial quantities as annuals in Nova Scotia as well.

    Will post something later on to let people know how the turmeric turns out. Because it is listed as hardy to -15c I am hoping we can start them in a greenhouse very soon and transplant them into a hanley hoophouse as soon as the ground thaws, for a harvest in September or October. I have no idea how much we’ll get from 5-7 months of growth.

  8. Hi, really interesting article thanks for sharing, I realise its a few year old now though. Just wondered if the gingers were grown in a polytunnel/hoop house, and if it was heated over winter?

    Any updates on growing gingers since this experience would be greatly heard too! Like how did the gingers crop and taste, did they continue to be hardy, did you grow anymore varieties?

  9. Hi,
    I am UK abased and building a new kitchen, thought it would be cool to have some house plants. The kitchen will be well lit, with big window In The roof. Would you recommend gingers? Which ones do you think will be best?
    I really like the idea of harvesting ginger but also keen for the plant to look
    Good and I know gingers can have nice flowers.
    Which species do you think best suits the criteria?
    Thanks so much

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