My visit to the Ginger Garden at the Singapore Botanic Garden was mind expanding. Where do I start - perhaps with the stuff that I just didn't know before - Gingers as we generally know them are Zingiberacea, rhizomatous flowering herbs, but they are part of a much larger family - Zingiberales which includes Zingiberacea, Bananas, Heliconias, Cannas and Prayer Plants. It was surprising learning this but knowing this now and seeing them together in one place- there is a kind of visual order in the leaf and flower shapes that links them all. The range of shapes and color of the blooms and leaves and the variety of heights that the plants in this family make up on the other hand is - huge. This diversity and commonality as you can imagine makes for a fantastic idea for a garden. That's just aesthetically or botanically.
As it happens Gingers are also culinarily fascinating. There's root ginger which flavors things from curries to scones to Ginger Beer and your Chai at Starbucks. Then there's the related rhizomes Lengkuas/Laos/Galangal and the lesser ginger Krachai which are prevalent in South East Asian Cuisine. There's also Turmeric, where both roots and leaves are used. More unusual is the use of the finely sliced Torch Ginger flower particularly in the regional Malacca Nyonya dishes. Who knew that Cardomoms are also in the ginger family. Then there's Bananas for desert. What a great theme for a restaurant. Halia, the Malay name for ginger is that restaurant, and its right there in the Ginger Garden. Right about when I saw it and a variegated leaf Banana plant just outside it, my head exploded, because I love good ideas and this was a great one well executed. The significance of the banana leaf is that there were banana leaves being utilized for foliage color- from bronze to variegated- just stunning.
We have this strange potted plant at home with an unusual spiralling habit which I think is gorgeous and have been struggling to identify. Its a ginger. A spiral ginger or costus. Next door there's a strange plant with flowers that dangle over our fence. Also a ginger - a Globba Leucantha. We also have a huge Heliconia and a few prayer plants in the side border. I could see this side border getting a little more ginger friendly if I can find some Hedychiums and Calatheas and some Kaempeferias and that beautiful torch ginger -see pic on right. The Heliconias I saw were also far more subtle and interesting (see the variegated one on the left) than the ones seen in most gardens. The whole set of photos is here.
The information boards at the garden mention H. N. Ridley, who I have now discovered is an important botanist for the region who authored a large number of books and articles on local flora- I just added one to the vintage library- Spices. A quick scan of the body of literature he generated reiterates another botanic theme that is beginning to really fascinate - the native flora that once brought the Western World here in search of the novel, exotic and also the commercial and innovative- Ridley was influential in jumpstarting the rubber industry here. Culinary and medicinal herbs and spices, plant material for dyes, flowers for perfume, exotic woods are the reasons that once set ships a sailing to this region. Exotic, highly prized and valued. What a different 'place' this was from now where the perception is that it is where you come for cheap labor.
Ginger is said to to be an appetite enhancer, a mental clarifier and stimulant - my forays down the ginger garden paths have indeed done just that.