The first time I heard about a Ginger that could survive freezing winters outdoors, I was sceptical. Gingers are tropical plants, after all, and the culinary Ginger (Zinigiber officinale) that I already did cultivate in my Brooklyn keeled over at the first hint of frost (it can be grown as an annual in our helpfully steamy summers).
But the person telling me about this cold-tolerant Ginger said that she had just harvested the first, edible buds from her Myoga plant and that she had left its pot on her Manhattan balcony right through the previous winter. I was intrigued.
What is Myoga Ginger?
Unlike so-called Stem Ginger, Zingiber mioga is not cultivated for its rhizome. Instead, Myoga is grown for its fleshy rose-and-white flower buds. They are firm and crisp, and a seasonal delicacy in Japan and Korea. At a Japanese supermarket in Brooklyn, I have seen them priced at $5 each.
How to harvest Myoga buds
In late summer through to fall, Myoga buds form just beneath the surface of the soil and begin to poke out when they are about two to three inches long. If left undisturbed they open into orchid-like yellow and white blooms. But to eat them you snap the tight buds off where they narrow at the base, well before they have begun to unfold.
The plants I sourced came as dainty starts from Strictly Medicinal Seeds, a nursey based in Oregon. They arrived by mail in narrow grow-pots. Two-and-a-half years later my Myoga forest is flourishing on our terrace in two pots, sixteen and twelve inches in diameter.
Its graceful tropical blades of foliage are four feet tall, and very aromatic when crushed (they infuse gin deliciously). Starting in late summer, I collect the first handfuls of the fragrant buds. More and more are produced as the nights grow longer and the weather cooler.
Ahead of the Myoga’s first Brooklyn winter, and despite its touted hardiness, I hedged my bets. I left one pot outside but brought the other indoors. When pots freeze and thaw repeatedly in winter this cycle can burst the roots of even hardy plants. Also, large pots can remain frozen at the base while the top thaws and water pools. Unable to drain, the plant drowns - I learned this the hard way.
Terrace Myoga turned to mush. It had been a particularly brutal winter, and our terrace is exposed to punishing wind. So while Myoga is said to be hardy to 14’F ( -10’C) (it is native to cold valleys and slopes in eastern Asia), things can get ugly with the windchill. Livingroom Myoga, however, sent out pearly new shoots in mid-spring. Phew.
If temperatures really dip, move containers indoors to a room that is not too warm. The plants will go completely dormant, so you only need to water them a couple of times during winter, but in general, their soil should remain dry. They will emerge miraculously in spring.
Growing Myoga in-ground is a different, lower maintenance story. The consistent temperature of surrounding soil acts as a protective layer. I would have no hesitation leaving the plants in-ground in gardens in regions down to USDA Zone 6a (I garden in 7b), although a good layer of insulating mulch would help. Myoga blends in beautifully in a semi-shaded garden.
When Myoga outgrows its pot, divide the plants in spring and repot the divisions before they have fully leafed out.
How to eat Myoga buds
Their floral flavor is delicate. I like to slice them on the bias and toss with finely-cut shiso or basil leaves and a pinch of good salt. This fresh, aromatic relish is delicious with grilled meats like soy-marinated steak or pan-seared duck breasts. Myoga buds are also wonderful with raw fish in ceviche, poke, or sushi. A traditional Korean preparation is to grill the buds on skewers, alternating with pieces of meat.
In the mood for Myoga? Let us know how your ginger forest is coming along in the comments.
Photos: © Marie Viljoen