The Genus Kaempferia
This is a medium-sized genus of small herbaceous perennials native to Asia. Several species are cultivated in Coastal Southeast gardens for their attractive foliage and colorful flowers. They are commonly called peacock gingers. The correct identities of these plants can be confusing. Tim Chapman of Gingerwood Nursery has updated some of the names below. The cultivated plants, at least, are deciduous in winter. They spread slowly but are durable perennials. The fastest of them can be used as a groundcover for a small area. With their ease of cultivation, small size, and wide variety of form and color, they tempt the gardener to make a collection. Cornukaempferia is a closely related genus with plants that have a similar appearance.
All of these plants are easy to grow in shade and a reasonably well-drained soil. They are generally tough and surprisingly drought tolerant. They deserve greater use in our region’s gardens.
The ginger family, Zingiberaceae, contains several genera of plants that we grow in our gardens, including hidden lily (Curcuma,) butterfly ginger (Hedychium) and ginger (Zingiber.) Cardomom, ginger, galangal, and tumeric are some important commercial spices come from this family.
narrow-leaf peacock ginger
This is a deciduous herbaceous perennial with stout underground rhizomes. In the commonest form, the leaves are comparatively narrow and plain green, wavy on the margins, and stand about eight inches tall. Variegated selections are available. I have one robust form that I purchased as K. siamensis (pictured below.) Flowers are lavender and white, with a purple center. The plant has a moderate growth rate. It is reported to be cold hardy from zone 8 to the tropics.
This plant may be found in specialty catalogs. This plant spreads relatively quickly and is easily propagated by division. Presumably, the species are propagated by seed, too, but I have never seen one produce a fruit.
The leaves of plants in my upper zone 9a garden emerge in May to early June, depending on spring temperatures. They flower from late May into June. They die to the ground in November or December, depending on winter temperatures.
Kaempferia elegans ‘Shazam’
‘Shazam’ peacock ginger
This is a low-growing, deciduous herbaceous perennial with underground rhizomes. Foliage is spotted strongly with silver and dark green. Leaves are held close to the ground. Flowers are purple-pink. Flowers and growth habit are similar to K. pulchra. It has a moderate growth rate. It is recommended for zone 8 and south.
This plant may be found in specialty catalogs. This plant is easily propagated by division. This plant has been sold as K. laotica, a different plant.
My plants produce new leaves between the end of May and mid-June. It dies to the ground in November or December.
This is a green-leafed species with leaves that lay nearly flat on the ground. Flowers are white with a little purple in the center. This is one of several gingers known as galanga. The roots of this species are used in Southeast Asian cooking and medicines. It is reported to be reliably cold hardy in zone 8b and possibly in 8a. This one spreads slowly.
This species may be found in specialty catalogs. This plant may be propagated by division.
My plant flowers in late summer to fall. New leaves emerge in late May to early June. Its leaves die to the ground with the first hard frost, usually in December.
Kaempferia species ‘Hieroglyphics’
This is a low-growing, deciduous herbaceous perennial with underground rhizomes. Foliage is beautifully marked with silver between the veins. The leaves are held nearly flat to the ground so they are easily covered by fallen leaves. Flowers are lavender pink. It spreads slowly. I can find no information about its cold hardiness.
This plant may be available in specialty catalogs. Tim tells me that the name is not yet published but this plant has been sold as Kaempferia hieroglyphica. My plant is slow but I am sure it will form a clump that can be divided – in time.
My plants have pink flowers in mid-June into October. New leaves emerge in mid to late May. It is deciduous at the first hard frost in December. My plant has survived winter lows in the upper teens F.
Flat Maroon peacock ginger
This is a low-growing, deciduous herbaceous perennial with underground rhizomes. Leaves are green to purplish and lie very nearly flat on the ground. The roll at the edge of the leaf gives it more rigidity than the leaves of most Kaempferia species. Flowers are white with a purple spot in the center. It spreads very slowly in my garden. It grows well in shade near other Kaempferia species. I find little information about this plant. Tim Chapman says it is closely related to K. galanga.
My purple-leafed plant came from ginger expert, Tom Wood, as Kaempferia ‘Flat Maroon.’ It spreads slowly but should be propagatable by division. This attractive little plant is in the hands of collectors. Hopefully, it will appear in the nursery trade in the near future.
My plant produces new leaves in late May to mid-June. It has white flowers from July to September. It dies to the ground after first hard frost, usually in December.
This species holds its leaves more upright than most. They tend to arch out from the center of the clump. Leaves are green with a reddish underside. The species name, parviflora, refers to the small flower that is usually hidden below the foliage. It grows with more vigor and tolerates more sun than the small, flat species. It is reported to be cold hardy from zone 8 to the tropics. It has been used as a medicinal plant in Asia.
This plant is available in specialty catalogs. This plant spreads relatively quickly and is propagated easily by division.
My plants produce new leaves in early to late May to early June. The small white and purple flowers appear in early June after the foliage expands. It dies back after freeze, usually in December.
This must be the most familiar of the peacock gingers. The species is highly variable. Young foliage is spotted with silver, especially when they newly unfold. ‘Bronze’ is a form with brownish leaves that are marked with silver. A particularly vigorous form is sold as ‘Mansonii.’ Some retain markings on mature leaves but others turn mostly green. Additional cultivars may exist. Flowers are lavender or white. It has a moderate rate of spread, fast compared to other Kaempferia species. It is recommended for zone 8 and south.
Plants may be found in local nurseries and are available in specialty catalogs. This plant is easy to propagate by division.
My plants produce new leaves in early May to early June. The various selections have white or purple flowers from late June into October. It dies to the ground after hard frost. This is the only species of Kaempferia that has spread by seeds in my garden.
This species has upright leaves, somewhat like K. parviflora. The clump can grow to twelve inches tall or more. In contrast to K. parviflora, this species produces large flowers before the leaves emerge in spring. These orchid-like flowers are white with lavender and purple lips. Foliage is lightly spotted with silver and are reddish below. The leaves of cultivar ‘Frost’ have stronger silver markings. Cultivar ‘Grande’ is much larger than typical cultivars. Growth rate is moderate. It is recommended for zone 8 and south.
Plants may be found in local nureries and are available in specialty catalogs. This plant is propagated easily by division.
My plants begin flowering in late April to mid-May before the first leaves appear. Leaves are produced in mid-May to early June, and die down in December.
I purchased this plant a few years ago as ‘Tiny Stripes.’ Tim Chapman identified it as a form of K. siamensis. Leaves are about five inches long. This plant has grown slowly in my garden with little attention. I find little information about this species.
This plant might be found in a specialty catalog.
My plant has grown well for several years in an unirrigated part of my garden in the shade of a live oak. It has survived winter lows in the upper teens. Like most of my Kaempferia species, it is dormant through the winter months and leaves emerge late, usually in mid-May.
Kaempferia x ‘Pink Lace’
This hybrid is fairly new to the nursery trade. It is a larger plant, rather like K. rotunda. As the name indicates, the silver-marked foliage has a rich pink tint. The flowers emerge before the leaves appear. They are nearly white with some pink pigment.
This plant is available in specialty catalogs.
My plant is young but appears to be as vigorous as the other species in my garden. The foliage color makes it an attractive addition to the shade garden. This plant is one of the last to produce foliage in spring in my upper zone 9 garden. Leaves emerge in June.