Kaempferia rotunda

It is interesting that the popularity of plants that die back for the winter is greater in tropical countries than in Europe. Homes in the tropics look quite different before plant growth starts in spring and after it has started, when some appear to be filled with twice as many plants. This is probably due to the fact that the natural environment is so bright and colourful that people do not feel the same longing for greenery as do those living in Europe, and do not make an effort to have it constantly about them. It is, of course, a pity to eliminate certain truly beautiful species that are easy to grow, but which die down for the winter. All that is needed to avoid having a seemingly empty flower pot around during the dormant period is to put them in a dish together with some other plant. For example, the species, which overwinters in the form of a thickened rhi2ome, can be combined with some evergreen, shallow-rooting species such as maranta.

The genus Kaempferia includes some 45 species distributed in tropical and subtropical Asia, and found occasionally also in Africa. The K. rotunda is from the Indo-Malaysian region where it is a great favourite for home decoration.

When its ‘winter rest period’ (actually the dry season between the monsoon rains) is over, the flowers are first to appear above the ground. These are relatively large (some 6 to 7 cm [2-¼ to 2-¼ in]) in diameter and very fragrant. They are followed by the leaves, which are silvery on the upper surface, violet-purple below and often more than 1/3 m (20 in) long. The storage organ is a thick rhizome which yields a yellow oil scented like camphor at first and later like tarragon. Also widely grown is K. galanga, whose range extends from India to Vietnam and from Malaysia to New Guinea. It is a small species with prostrate, basal leaves that are broadly oval and only about 10 cm (4 in) long. The flowers, approximately 12 to a plant, are attractive even though they measure only about 2 cm (¾ in) across. The rhizome contains oils and volatile oils, also poisonous substances used by the Papuans of New Guinea as a dangerous narcotic in their ceremonials.

Cultivation is truly easy. The plants should be grown in a mixture of peat, leaf mould and sand in flat dishes rather than pots. In winter they should be watered only very lightly and occasionally after they have died back.

15. November 2011 by Dave Pinkney
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