Not the spice ginger, the variegated ginger has beautifully striped green and yellow foliage and underground stems that you can use as a spice ginger substitute. It is native to tropical Asia and is an evergreen herb in regions not affected by frost. All plant parts emit a spicy fragrance when bruised.
The variegated ginger is not a true culinary ginger (Zingiber), but is of a different botanical genus, Alpinia. The variegated variety of the shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet "Variegata") is most commonly referenced when "variegated ginger" is mentioned. The pinstripe ginger (Alpinia formosa) and Alpinia sandarae, however, may be described as variegated, too. All are members of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae.
All species of Alpinia are native to southeastern Asia or the Pacific. The variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet "Variegata") hails from India and Southeast Asia's rainforests in moist, humus-rich soils and humid, warm temperatures.
Variegated ginger is an evergreen tropical perennial herb that grows from a fleshy, horizontal stem called a rhizome. The leaves are long lances, waxy and and thin and colored deep green with irregular but attractive stripes of yellow. Crush any plant part and smell a pungent aroma. The flowers are pearly white with hints of pink and look like tiny seashells, appearing in the warmth of late spring or summer. The plant stems can grow as tall as 5 to 8 feet.
For best foliage color and presentation, plant variegated ginger in partially shaded exposures, so that direct sunlight reaches the leaves through overhead tree branches. Prolonged direct sunlight can cause foliage to scald, brown or bleach. The soil must be consistently moist, but well-draining. A sandy soil that has a lot of organic matter is ideal.
Variegated ginger is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Zones 8 to 15 (the warmest areas of the Southeast and West); in the warmest parts of Zone 7 (moderate regions of the South and West), the plant may be inconsistently hardy depending on annual winter low temperatures. In regions free of frost, the ginger is evergreen. A frost or freeze kills back stems and leaves to the ground; the rhizomes will sprout new foliage in spring.
Variegated ginger is used in tropical landscapes for filling borders, in containers or as building foundation plantings. In cold climates, it often serves as a seasonal container plant for the patio. The foliage can be cut and used in fresh flower arrangements. The rhizome, when dug up, may be cut fresh and used as a substitute for culinary ginger root.