JAPANESE GINGER LILY

I have often admired and envied the ginger lilies that grown in the garden of our neighbour from Paraguay. Cycling past her expertly tended gardens, when her tall, hedychium coranarium plants flower at the end of August and the beginning of September, I always greedily inhale the scent of the flowers and wish I could pick them. I probably sometimes have.

This year, just beyond the kitchen window, a big ginger lily – which D says came from a cutting from a friend of ours who moved back to Scotland nine years ago, and which has always been there, getting bigger each year, but has definitely never blossomed before (because you can be sure I would have noticed )- opened up out of the blue in the garden one day, just as we were about to go out. By the time we had returned home, it was open more fully, intensely fragrant – like a delicate gardenia infused with freshly cut ginger stems – and proceeded to keep flowering, and wilting, flowering and wilting as new buds kept opening up.

We were both really excited. I have never had a plant fragrant enough to disturb the senses from outside the window before – (if you discount our big osmanthus tree, which makes you almost too delirious come October)- but never a white flower, with that erotically petalled, lunescent trail of perfume trailing up at the moments when you least expect it. My mother has an incredible trellised jasmine back home that smells breathtaking in early summer; there were lilies here everywhere in July, wisteria in June; but this is the first time that I have ever had such a seductively scented flower of my own.

34 Comments

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34 responses to “JAPANESE GINGER LILY

  1. Tara C

    Wow, that’s lovely! I’ve never smelled one of those. We always had a huge wisteria bush that I loved growing up. Planted some in my own yard and discovered how invasive they are, need to keep them aggressively pruned, but they always bloom for my birthday so I consider it my special flower.

  2. Robin

    What an exquisite bloom, N. Lucky you! I’d go nuts. I love when things bloom unexpectedly. And of course scented flowers from our own gardens are somehow thoroughly magical anyway, expected or not (or at least for me, not having the greenest or most experienced of thumbs). The heat and humidity in Japan gives you a whole different spectrum of pleasure. Oh, I wish I could be there to see it and smell it. We have such pedestrian, essentially English-climate flowers here compared to those exotic plants.

    Mind you, our sweet peas have been climbing higher than my head and blooming steadily since mid-July and, while they’re an unassuming, cottage-y, prosaic little flower, to me their scent is otherworldly, and half the time brings me to near tears. If somehow someone could make a fragrance that included that precise smell . . . but no one has come even close.

    • AAGGGGH. Sweet peas smell utterly heavenly. I LOVE the scent of them so much. We always had a lot in our back garden growing up. Divine. Ultimately I prefer sweet peas because they are so delicately poignant and yet deeply immediately uplifting: this ginger lily is much more on the lush, slow and drowsy tip

      • Robin

        You describe sweet peas so well, and it’s not easy. That delicate but intense kind of beauty is ineffable. I do prefer it over lush as well, but we have so little lush to smell around here that I crave it when I read about things like ginger lilies. And that last photo: what a wild kind of structure. All the photos are amazing, actually.

        Damn, it’s great to have you back.

      • Thanks. Nice to be here.

        There’s something about the colours of sweet peas, too, isn’t there? How can they all be different pastels in the same bunch? Are there any other flowers like that?

      • Robin

        Well, each seed is its own colour/unique variety, and they’re often planted in a multi-coloured mix as each grows and climbs thin and vertically next to its neighbour, so that’s how the different colours in any bunch of picked sweet peas occurs. That’s mostly how they’re sold in packets, too. And somehow they all go together brilliantly, don’t they, the pastels and the brights, the darks and the pales. It seems that some colours/varieties have stronger scent than others; I used to plant a particular one, can’t remember the name (just looked it up: aptly named High Scent!), cream-coloured with ruffly lavender edges, that you could smell far, far up the driveway before you were even in the yard. Those ones actually came in a packet unmixed with others. I bet your mom knows them. I wonder if you can grow sweet peas in your yard? More easily than I can grow ginger lilies for sure!

      • We should. I am not a gardener, by any stretch of the imagination, but this year has brought home the pleasure of looking after plants on the balcony and in the front garden, small though it is. My mum is brilliant at it – I might have to ask her next time we are on the phone.

    • OnWingsofSaffron

      Oh how I love sweet peas too! When we lived in Kathmandu in the 70-ies we had a whole „wall“ of them in all colours. Underneath were the less brilliant smelling tagetes 😉 but so very jolly! Every time I see the unruly sweet peas in one of the very expensive flower shops here (which is only for a very short time), I get all melancholic: tempi passati!

      • It’s interesting how this sweet pea conversation spurs such passions: there is absolutely something melancholic about them – so delicately optimistic – that makes me yearn, in a way that for example freesias, lovely as they are – don’t.

  3. Tora

    I adore the smell of ginger lilies! Years ago in Florida while walking the dog in a field, I came across a whole bunch of these tall fronds by a creek with white flowers. I couldn’t believe the beautiful smell. I went back to that field later and dug up a few smaller stalks and planted them just outside our back patio. Within a few years there were 20 stalks blooming all late summer. I would cut a bunch in the morning and even though they were wilted and mushy by afternoon, they became one of my favorite flowers, growing when most everything except the datura was overwhelmed by the heat and humidity. You are so lucky to have these precious and delicate blooms, Neil. I wish they grew here in Colorado.

    • Somehow I knew you loved them: have you told me this story before? They DO wilt quickly, don’t they? I was thinking fuck! why are they dying just when I have got such a gorgeous natural fragrance in the garden, but then I noticed that the same thing was happening to the other ginger lilies I know in the neighbourhood as well.

    • I was reading up on them actually and saw that they proliferate in the American South: such a gorgeous idea. Tree moss dangling and swamps with ginger lilies. I am sure Colorado is breathtaking in its own arid way, but I am much more of a sultry marsh creature ultimately!

  4. Editor Devil魔鬼小編

    It was my favorite in my childhood. I grew up in a rural village in Hong Kong. My neighbor grew it in the backyard. We could smell it when passing by the house. Some women sold it in the wet market or on the street in the early morning during summertime. But it withers and falls very quickly, maybe overnight, if you put them in a vase. Enjoy.

    • Thank you – and what a gorgeous evocation. Last night when I got home from my first day back at work the scent was so strong outside the house it was dreamlike.

      • Editor Devil魔鬼小編

        My father didn’t fancy it and claimed that its intoxicating fragrance would attract snakes. I don’t know if it’s true. But it certainly stopped me from growing this flower in my backyard.

      • I have a thing for snakes – I wouldn’t mind! (unless you have horrifyingly venomous ones in Hong Kong)

      • Editor Devil魔鬼小編

        Yes, we do have venomous snakes in Hong Kong. I saw it a couple times in my backyard when I was a kid. I once kill one that sneaked into our house at night with a broom when I was watching TV alone at home. I did write about it on my platform but it’s in Chinese. I wonder what you have for snakes…sorry, snakes are not for me, though I ate it twice when I was a kid.

      • !

        I am not a big fan by any means; I don’t love them; but I see something beautiful and elegant in them as well. There are quite a lot in Kamakura, and I find it quite exciting when I see them. If there was a dangerous poisonous snake in my house though, I would probably kill it with a broom myself as well.

        How was the taste, incidentally? I have heard it is quite boring as a meat.

      • Editor Devil魔鬼小編

        I have developed herpetophobia since I was a kid. I was forced to swallow a raw snake gallbladder when I was young. I don’t want to remember its taste. But it’s imprinted on my brain. Sorry, I don’t want to ruin your blog with this stuff. I do like the ginger lily a lot.

  5. There’s a patch of ginger lilies in my front garden to the side of the Iranian date palm I grew from seed. Mine are just the regular ginger not the Japanese myoga ginger though. Quite the lovely landscape plant with tasty roots, gorgeous fragrance, and a brilliant tropical green silhouette. I wonder if there is a perfume that captures the scent of the Japanese ginger lily flower?
    The raat-ki-rani bush (night blooming jasmine/queen of the night) by my desk window hasn’t started it’s midnight revelry of fragrance either. I keep planting moonflowers hoping to experience their scent in the evening when they open their huge, pleated pure white blooms but no fragrance yet.
    At this point in the Monsoon everything looks tired, mouldering, & waterlogged. We are on SOS flood alert here due to ongoing downpours. A Nepali Army rescue helicopter just flew over my house to fetch a family off their roof as they’ve been trapped in a landslide up the mountain since last night. Usually Monsoon rains stop September 1 and it’s all blue skies & mellow Autumn sunshine for the start of the Hindu & Buddhist holiday season? Never a dull moment in Nepal. Sigh.

    • I am feeling currently that we are basically in some kind of Armageddon. All of this, AND the fucking coronavirus. These are hellish days.

      But these flowers also do definitely make a difference. I looked them up and saw that they are actually native to the Himalayas (I don’t think these are myoga – we thought so at first, but the shape isn’t right and these pictures match the classic generic ginger lily, otherwise we would be already eating them – I was hoping you would tell me stories like this.

      Life is a mixed bag, for sure; intense AF

      • You are correct!
        That flower is Hedychium coronarium, the white garland lily or white ginger lily. I have never seen them here, but they are native to the Eastern Himalayas of India (Sikkim & Tripura), and Bhutan to Bangladesh. I am west of Kathmandu, the Eastern Himalayas start east of Kathmandu with the Everest region and Kangchenjunga. I shall have to seek them out!
        It is found in the forest understory and flowers August through December. Very curious, the only place I have seen white ginger lilies growing in gardens is Hawaii and Florida. I have never seen myoga ginger growing either. Yay! I learned something new!
        Being a native northern Californicator, I am certainly lacking in tropical plant expertise. It took me 2 years here to learn to plant seeds AROUND the Monsoon (either way before or directly after) as Nepalis do rather than by the seasons as done in temperate climates. Seeds & seedlings just rot in Monsoon damp & heat.

      • I can hardly believe you are some kind of garden novice from the garden of edens descriptions you give around where you live, which are extremely enticing.

        I am crap at dealing with plants, and like natural looking gardens; sprawling; messy – can’t STAND suburban rows of marigolds and pansies etc – on the road where I grew up in England, Dovehouse Lane, there were some truly grotesque, deeply, deeply ugly patterned front lawns full of anally retentive competitive lines of horror colours meant to vanquish the person next door’s similar efforts. I was a mere child, but had total faith in my aesthetic taste that what I saw before me was vile – and nothing could have persuaded me otherwise.

        When you get to more poetically minded English gardens……well, they are utterly beautiful, of course. As good as the best Japanese green spaces – both are exemplary in a way (I love Italian gardens too). But messy and natural is ultimately always the best for me. And preferably fragrant.

      • Giggling.
        My garden is rather “junglee” as Nepalis say. My Sikkimese gardener gets irked at my haphazard horticultural style – he was trained at a 5 star hotel. Survival of the fittest & more is better are the only rules in my garden!

      • !!!!! Dame Perfumery has a white ginger soliflore!!!!!
        I wants me the preshusssss!

  6. Editor Devil魔鬼小編

    Oh, by the way, I purchased your book “Perfume- in search of your signature scent” after I started to read your blog in July(?). Thank you very much.

  7. Oh how absolutely lovely those ginger lilies are. I wish we had intoxicating flowers here, but alas, all I have are roses, and most of the ones on the side of the house don’t even have scent!!!! I do have some peonies and a couple of other rose bushes that smell divine, but nothing truly intoxicating. We did have a jasmin shrub here, that was beyond amazing, but when they dug up the property to replace the leach field, up came the jasmin with it and we have yet to find a proper replacement, not to mention I am a terrible gardener, so I do not even know how to care for one properly.
    I loved all the wonderful smells of the flowers in Hong Kong when I was there, just so lush and enveloping, but nothing like that would ever grow here, or if any did, they would not survive the winters.

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