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Monday, August 16, 2010

Local gingers, herbs for landscaping

STUNNING: Etlingera elatior adds drama to the home garden.

By PU Chien puchien@streamyx.com

PROFESSOR Dr Halijah Ibrahim recently gave a talk at the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre on local plants that have high potential for landscape work. She obtained her PhD in Botany from the UK in 1979.
Her vast experiences in teaching and research work, especially in the field of Zingiberaceae, have been recognised in four books and 150 scientific journals. She is the editor of the landscaping magazine ‘Garden Asia’. This magazine started in 2000 and has covered a wide range of plants and technical matters.
The talk was very enlightening and the following is based on what I learned as well as past experience.

What are gingers and herbs? 
Some 350 species under the Zingiberaceae family can be found in Malaysia — one of 12 mega-diversity centres in the world. Southeast Asia houses the richest collections with nearly 30 per cent of the world’s plants in this category. The world is estimated to have more than 15,000 species of this flora.
This part of our natural heritage is actually quite new for landscaping use. Some good examples of this fascinating species recently introduced to our homes and public parks are the Alpinias, etlingera elatior (kantan) and Zingiber spectabile, which is only found in Sarawak.
Gingers have aromatic properties and are used as a herb as well as to flavour dishes. They are the largest group of monocots in the plant kingdom and are mostly perennial in nature.
The plants have underground rhizomatous outgrowths. They spread out by eyebuds that grow new shoots to be planted as new growths.
Local species are quite heat sensitive as they are found naturally in jungle areas where they are shaded by bigger trees. The shallow rooting rhizomes require good fertilised top soil.
Several species of Alpinias are found in Malaysia like the Alpinia petiolata in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, which grow in hill regions. Alpinias can be interspecies fertilised to get new hybrids such as the Alpinia palarzensie. The red and pink varieties of the Alpinia superata are widely used for landscaping.
Other varieties to look out for include:
1. Argentea — a species from Borneo. 
2 A zerumbet — from the highland or cool erregions like Kundasang in Sabah.
3.Curcuma longa (kunyit) is widely used in curries. Some species can be confused as orchids because of their inflorescence.
4.A mutica is a common choice for home landscaping.

Alpinias are the most easily grown and have beautiful flowers. They can be grown in large groups to cover unsightly areas such as septic tanks or as a hedge.
I personally feel they should not be planted too high above compound level unless watering is not a problem.
Many varieties are popular because of their bold, large and spectacular inflorescence. Some are ideal as cut flowers. Zingiberaceae come in various heights and will not grow too wild in terms of spreading rapidly like the heliconia.

Growing gingers
Propagation for some varieties is by rhizome pilling or seeds in various wet fertilised soils, while others prefer dry sandy loam. They can perform better under 30 per cent shade. A few varieties may require shade to prevent white spot disease caused by fungal pathogens.
To ensure good growth, add in new potting mix or mount the beds with new soil. This will encourage new rhizomes to form and thus new shoots for inflorescences.
For maintenance, prune away dead heads right down to ground level to encourage new blooms. Fertiliser is not necessary if you have good soil and potting mix. If necessary, a good choice is to use leaf mould and compost, or chicken or goat dung is also effective.
Tall varieties will not stand upright well without help. Use string to bundle them together or have a central stand or post. Another way is to fence them in using hardened plastic nets to surround the outgrowths. Also frequently remove unwanted shoots rising from the soil.I am very pleased to see some gardeners have done very well with these plants in Kuching. Just take a look along Jalan Stampin or along Jalan Bampfylde Heights. We can see good species of Zingiberaceae.

Other valuable local herbs and gingers
Borneo is blessed with many undiscovered and unexploited exotic Aroids and Bosenbergias. Potential ones include the Curcumas, Globbas, Kaempferias and Hedychiums. We also can find good species of Begonias here too. Orthosiphon stamineus (Misai Kucing) is a favourite for garden design and is also a useful medicinal herb. Another edible one is Kaempferia rotunda, which is said to be an aphrodisiac

Finally a note regarding the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC), which was established in 1998 to:
1. Implement bio-prospecting programmes for Sarawak’s indigenous biodiversity.
2. Document traditional knowledge of communities on the use of biodiversity.
3. Regulate biodiversity research with commercial potential in Sarawak.
4. Conduct biotechnology appreciation and awareness programmes.
5. Propagate Sarawak’s indigenous plants for conservation and appreciation.
6. Develop biodiversity databases for Sarawak.
7. Network with organisations with similar interests.
KEEP COOL: A zerumbet can be found in the highlands or cooler regions.

To learn more about the centre go to www.sbc.org.my.If you have any questions or comments, do send me an email. That’s it from me for this week. All the best and happy gardening.

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