Add late summer spice with this Southern classic.

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Late August and September are not my favorite times in the garden. Some flowers are dead, some soon will be, while many of the remainder hardly try. But one plant hasn’t given up. It’s a time-honored perennial whose graceful blossoms have adorned Southern gardens for generations – ginger lily.

Ginger lily (Hedychium coronarium) isn’t a true lily, but a rhizomatous member of the ginger family. Some folks know it as butterfly ginger, because when its pure white blooms open fully, the spreading petals remind you of a butterfly’s wings. They release an intoxicating, sweet scent some compare to honeysuckle. They’re excellent for cutting and bringing indoors. A cluster of flowers atop a cut stalk placed in a vase opens one by one, perfuming a room for up to a week.

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You can buy ginger lily from a garden center or online (Plant Delights is a good source). Many people, though, receive it as passalong plant from a family member, neighbor, or friend in the form of a clump of roots dug in the fall or spring. Roots spread quickly in moist soil, so give it plenty of room. It forms a small thicket of sturdy stems lined by long, alternating, sword-shaped leaves that point upward and give it a tropical vibe. Stems grow up to five feet tall. Flowers appear at the top, starting in August or September depending on where you live, and continuing for weeks. Butterflies slurp up the copious nectar.

Steve Bender

To look its best, ginger lily needs fertile soil that’s consistently moist or even wet. The edge of a pond or stream is perfect. It tolerates full sun in moist soil, but light shade is preferable. Pests seldom bother it. The only work you’ll have to do is controlling its spread (pass along those divisions!) and cutting down and composting the withered stalks and leaves in late fall.

If you wonder why you’ve never seen or smelled ginger lily, it could be you live too far north. It’s winter-hardy from USDA Zone 7B south. Still want one? Well, I hear some people in colder climates grow it next to a sunny window as a houseplant. I’ve never tried that, because I don’t have to. Southerners are just so lucky!