Heaven Scent

Close your eyes and smell a ginger blossom, and your life might change forever. After breathing its heavy perfume--so redolent of languid midnight in the tropics--how could anyone be satisfied with less?

And yet Zingiber officinale, among the most common gingers in California, offers more: Its knobby, tasty roots not only liven up curries, they're also supposed to stimulate digestion, power the circulation and fire one's appetite for love.

Part of the family Zingiberaceae, which includes hundreds of species native to warm climates around the world, ginger thrives in Japan, India, Australia and New Guinea. Right now, riding a wave of enthusiasm for tropical plants, gingers are popular around the United States, though in cold zones they must winter in a greenhouse.

In Southern California, we grow them outside all year. Some, such as zingiber, disappear during the frigid months. Others, such as Alpinia speciosa, keep their dark-green, lance-like leaves in all but the coldest winters, reaching 10 to 12 feet and erupting in the summer with waxy, pendulous blooms.

In general, gingers like their soil rich, their roots moist and their sun filtered. Divide their rhizomes in spring and plant them with exotic companions such as ferns, palms and heliconias. Before long, their stalks will sway and their leaves rustle in the wind. And, of course, their flowers will smell like heaven.

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