Taken from the Greek word Ἑλικώνιος (helikṓnios), this genus of flowering plant comes from the Heliconiaceae family. The majority of the 194 known species are native to tropical America, with a few variants native to the islands of Maluku and the western Pacific.
Many species of Heliconia are found in tropical wet forests and rainforests, with several of the species being cultivated solely for ornamental use. A few variants are naturalised in Gambia, Florida and Thailand.
This tropical herbaceous plant is part of the zingiberales family, which also includes the bird-of-paradise, bananas, ginger and cannas.
These species boast extensive rhizomatous growth, which means shoots and roots form from a horizontal underground stem. Each shoot boasts both a stem and leaves, which usually lead to a group of blooms.
Collective names for the genus include toucan peak, lobster-claws, wild plantains or false bird-of-paradise. Together, these plants are simply referred to as heliconia.
Why Heliconia plants are a popular choice for the garden
If you wish to add a touch of the tropics to your garden, deck, balcony, sunroom or patio, the Heliconia plant is an ideal option to choose. These impressively elegant, tropical, flowering plants range in size from a couple of feet to an astounding twenty-five foot – although the latter heights usually only grow in the wild.
The plant leaves are similar in style to those found on banana trees, with bracts of flowers evolving from the plant like a bunch of bananas.
Heliconia rostrata comes in the shape of a herbaceous perennial, originally born in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, and naturalised in Puerto Rico. In fact, it’s the national flower of Bolivia. Nicknames include the hanging lobster claw or false bird-of-paradise.
This specie differs from others in that it boasts downward-facing flowers (instead of cup-shaped blooms), which provide a source of nectar to birds, particularly humming birds.
Also known as Wild Plantain, this large, evergreen perennial looks a little like a banana. It grows between half a metre and five metres in height and boasts a series of tall clumps and wide spreading offsets.
This particular specie is often harvested from the wild for local use in medicines (the roots are astringent and diuretic), food and materials. It is also grown as an ornamental plant in both the tropics and subtropics.
This plant is native to the humid tropics, and is often found in humid subtropical areas. For best results and in order to thrive, it necessitates a moist, fertile, humus-rich soil and should be placed in a semi-shady position.
The flower sheaths boast a boat-like shape and are able to hold copious amounts of water. Unfortunately, this can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
This plant is often acquired in order to provide temporary protection to young cacao plants. Meanwhile in certain areas, the leaves are used in housing to create roofing, with the plant fibre being used to make paper.
The Heliconia Bihai is native to Northern and Southern America, including Colombia, Venezuela, the Guyanas, northern Brazil and the Caribbean.
This rhizomatous herb can reach an impressive height of six metres and boasts a flattened stem. The flower tends to bloom especially well in the dry season, yet is still able to bloom throughout the year.
Famous for its moderately short, upright, stout inflorescence and closely imbricating bracts, it’s likely pollinated by hummingbirds and is native to the tropical moist forest in the Canal Zone of Panama and Trinidad.
Also known as parrot’s beak, parrot’s flower, parakeet flower, parrot’s plantain or false bird-of-paradise, this perennial herb is found in South America and the Caribbean.
It is naturalised in Thailand, Gambia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles and Hispanolia, and is often cultivated as an ornamental plant.
Other varieties of Heliconia
There are a huge array of heliconia varieties, including smaller heliconia psittacorum species, and various other ‘clumping’ types, which often grow in a cluster.
Popular psittacorum types include petra, golden torch and Halloween. The most common clumping heliconia goes by the name of Claw II.
Preferred climate and soil
The majority of heliconia species flourish in warm, humid climates, with certain varieties thriving in full sunlight and others in shade. They’re unable to withstand extreme cold.
For best results, you should plant these species in free-draining soils brandishing lots of organic matter.
Heliconias are usually grown by dividing the main part of the roots – the rhizomes. This is the most prevalent way to grow these plants, as seeds are unpredictable and often take much longer to cultivate.
Pests and diseases
Pests and diseases to affect the heliconias plants include birds, ants, rats, soil pathogens and fungal diseases.
In order to prevent these pests from attacking plants, it’s important to check the leaves, flowers and stems on a regular basis and to remove any leaves or plants that are badly affected.
Psittacorums flower for the best part of the year, with a down period between May and July.
Claw II flowers on the other hand bloom almost all year round, with other large clumping types boasting seasonal flowering. You should therefore check with an online florist or garden centre when you purchase blooms in order to know when you can expect growth.
In order to harvest larger varieties, you’ll need to cut them to the desired length. Do this early in the morning and place flowers in water as soon as they have been removed from the plant.
Smaller varieties are often cut at ground level, as this encourages side shoots and allows light into the beds.
Basic Heliconia care
These plants are tropical, which means they prefer a steady temperature of 60°F (c. 15°C) or more. There are only a few hardy varieties in existence, which are able to tolerate cooler weather.
In the correct environment, both semi-tropical and tropical species are able to thrive outdoors all year-round.
These species of plant come in the shape of outdoor perennials, and are often used in both landscape gardens or as container plants in tropical or semi-tropical environments.
If you still wish to enjoy these species of plant yet live in a cooler environment, you may grow smaller varieties indoors.
Depending on the variety you choose, plants can range in height from two or three feet to an astounding fifteen feet or more.
It’s therefore essential that you check your plants when purchasing to ensure they will not grow to be too big for your indoor space.
The long-lasting bold blooms boast an array of hot hues, comprising shades of orange, red, yellow, pink and green. Flower spikes can measure up to several feet long, with bracts and flowers providing food and a home for insects, small birds and lizards.
You may therefore want to place them in hanging baskets or tubs if you have space. The flowers are also often used in cut flower arrangements and table displays, as they make a bold statement.
When kept as a perennial in a tropical setting, the lengthy fronds of this plant are evergreen in style. In cooler environments, leaves tend to die back much quicker.
They prefer to be placed in sheltered locations – it’s important to keep this in mind when planting these species of plant, as the likes of high winds can cause momentous damage, which results in weakened leaves.
These plants prefer light, well-drained soil, which is consistently moist. It’s important to not allow the soil to dry out from one watering to the next, especially when kept outdoors during the spring and summer months.
When kept indoors during the autumn and winter months, lower the plants water intake and watch out for root rot.
Sources: Heliconia, Heliconia Rostrata, Heliconia Bihai, Heliconia Wagneriana, Growing Heliconia at Home
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