The flowers are like crepe paper.
The leaves are arranged in a spiral around the stem like a winding staircase.
Crepe ginger can be easily propagated from stem cuttings.

The crepe ginger will add an exotic touch to your garden, writes Elaine Yim

REMEMBER the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe and her wind-blown skirt? That picture was taken by photographer Sam Shot in 1955 during the filming of the Hollywood movie The Seven Year Itch. In the Peninsula, we have an indigenous plant called the crepe ginger, which bears silky white flowers with frilly petals that open out like Marilyn Monroe’s flying white skirt.

This plant is cultivated as a garden ornamental as well as a medicinal plant for ayurvedic and traditional remedies for gastrointestinal, respiratory and gynaecological ailments. The young shoots and flower buds are edible. Some locals believe that the plant has magical powers which can drive away evil spirits from the body. It is mentioned in the Kama Sutra as a cosmetic ingredient for beautiful eyelashes.

It is quite a popular plant at holiday homes and resorts but I hope that more public gardens and residences will include this plant in their landscaping to showcase our national pride and heritage. You too can grow this at home to give your garden an exotic tropical, nusantara or Balinese feel. It is almost maintenance free and very easy to grow and propagate.

PLANT PROFILE

Scientific name: Cheilocostus speciosus

Synonyms: Costus speciosus,

C. nipalensis

Common names: Crepe Ginger, Malay Ginger, Wild Ginger, Spiral Ginger, Spiral Flag, White Costus, Cane Reed

Family: Costaceae

Order: Zingiberale

Category: Tropical perennial herb

This species was formerly known as Costus speciosus but in 2006, it was reclassified under the new genus Cheilocostus which consists of about five species of flowering plants in the Costaceae family. There are about 100 species of spiral gingers in the family of Costaceae. Cheilocostus speciosus is native to Peninsular Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

It is distributed throughout India, Bhutan, Nepal, southern China, Taiwan, Indochina, New Guinea, Australia and the Pacific islands.

The genus name Cheilocostus is derived from a combination of its former name “Costus” and the Greek word “cheilo” meaning “lip” referring to its large modified petals. The species name “speciosus” is a Latin word meaning strikingly beautiful.

It is known as bi qiao jiang in Chinese and setawar hutan, tawar-tawar, setawar halia as well as lemba batu in Malay.

THE PLANT

Cheilocostus speciosus is an erect, herbaceous perennial that grows in dense clumps, reaching a height of three metres. Like other ginger plants, the succulent new shoots grow from an underground rhizome. The leaves are thick, oval shaped, about 15-30 cm long and 5 to 7 cm wide, glossy dark green and silky smooth. Here’s the interesting part: The stems are cane-like, semi-woody and green to reddish. Some stems are upright and straight while others are arched with leaves arranged alternately like a spiral staircase.

This species is free-flowering. The flowers are borne on terminal inflorescences. They are pure white with very delicate frilly petals that look like crepe paper. One by one the flowers open and wither, leaving behind a cluster of red bracts in the shape of a pinecone. The flower spike can last for another few weeks. The fruit is an ovoid capsule with black seeds and white flesh that attract birds.

There is a variegated form, Cheilocostus speciosus ‘Variegatus’ with pale green and creamy white foliage. It is shorter, reaching a height of 2m.

It can be grown in a container, or applied in mass plantings on the ground combined with other members of Zingiberales. It is best planted in flower beds to encourage continuous flowering. This plant is adapted to an aquatic/wet environment.

Here’s how

PROPAGATION. You can buy a healthy potted plant from local nurseries. It is propagated by clump division, rhizomes, stem cuttings or plantlets/offsets from spent flower heads.

SUNLIGHT. Prefers partial sun but can tolerate full sun if well watered

MEDIUM. Rich well drained moist soil. The soil must not be water-logged.

WATER. Daily watering up to twice a day. It is a thirsty drinker even though it is quite drought tolerant.

FERTILISE. Apply a balanced fertiliser once a fortnight.

MAINTENANCE. The stems may need staking when they become too tall or heavy. Remove spent flower spikes. Divide when the clump is too big and repot when plant has outgrown its container.

PEST AND DISEASES. Not a problem.

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