Alpinia zerumbet 'variegata' makes a spectacularly colorful addition to sunny beds and container plantings.
Variegated shell ginger is a tall and dramatic landscape or container plant. The leaves are about 2 ft (0.6 m) long and 6 in (15.2 cm) across and strikingly variegated with irregular stripes of green and yellow. The habit is upright and does not require staking as do some other members of the family Zingiberaceae.
The flowers are white, tipped in pink, and borne in long pendant arches. The individual flowers are reminiscent of small seashells, which accounts for the common name "shell ginger". This Alpinia is root hardy to Zone 8, but it only flowers on old growth, so the flowers rarely will be seen except in frost-free areas.
Typically, variegated shell ginger grows to about 6 ft (1.8 m) tall, which is not as large as the non-variegated species (Alpinia zerumbet), which can grow to as much as 12 ft (3.7 m) tall.
There is a dwarf cultivar, Alpinia zerumbet 'Variegata Dwarf', which grows only to about 1 ft (0.3 m) tall, but has the same green and yellow variegated foliage with white seashell flowers. There also is a cultivar, 'Variegata Chinese Beauty', which has light green and dark green marbled foliage, that grows to 8 ft (2.4 m) tall.
Location Alpinia zerumbet is a native of India, but the species has been naturalized in Brazil. It is also found in some areas of central and south Florida. The cultivar 'variegata', however, is less aggressive than the species and has not naturalized.
Variegated shell ginger is tolerant of a wide range of light conditions from light shade to full sun, so long as there is adequate moisture. Part shade is ideal for this plant. Rich, fertile, organic soil is best and regular feeding with a balanced fertilizer will keep this plant healthy. This plant usually has few pest problems but the leaves will brown on the edges if the soil is not kept moist or if touched by frost.
Alpinias grow from thick fleshy roots called "rhizomes", similar in appearance to the "ginger root" found in grocery stores. They may be purchased as potted plants or as bare rhizomes, but they are easy to grow either way. Plant the rhizome about 1 in (2.5 cm) below the surface in a sandy loam that has been improved with leaf mold or well composted manure. Clay soils must be amended with compost to make a suitable medium for Alpinias. Light: Prefers light shade to full sun. Moisture: Needs moist, well drained soil. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 12. Variegated shell ginger is root-hardy in Zone 8, but it won't flower if its gets frost.
Propagation: Pieces of the rhizome, division of clumps or seed.
The variegated shell ginger flowers really do look like sea shells in shape and color.
Variegated shell ginger is best used as a specimen plant in partly shaded areas or as a container plant on a shaded patio. It often is sold as a container plant, and can be grown indoors in brightly lit areas. It is not nearly as aggressive as the species, and therefore more suitable as a container plant.
Variegated shell ginger is grown for its colorful foliage which will brighten up a partly shaded garden. The species may be found incorrectly named as Alpinia nutans in some catalogs or garden centers. Alpinia nutans is a very different-looking plant - with short, medium green leaves that have a unique fragrance when rubbed or crushed.
Many plants in the ginger family have culinary or medicinal uses. This ginger is not commonly used that way but the leaves and roots do contain the chemicals kavain and dehydrokavain, similar to the kava plant (Piper methysticum) which is known for its relaxing properties. The ground leaves of Alpinia zerumbet have been sold as both an anti-hypertension and anti-stress medication.