by David Bar-Zvi, Former Curator of Herbaceous Monocots
The genus Heliconia refers to a group of plants related to gingers, bananas, prayer plants and Birds of Paradise. There are an estimated 350 species of heliconia, the vast majority are found in tropical America. Oddly, six species have evolved in the islands from Sulawezi to the Solomon Islands. Descriptions of 13 Heliconia species.
These are rhizomatous, herbaceous plants that range in height from 18 inches to more than 20 feet tall. The "stems" (pseudostem) are the concentric, sheathing petioles of the paddle-like leaves each layer giving additional strength to hold the leaves and flowers. As the leaves deteriorate, the stem collapses. The single inflorescence per growth emerges terminally, standing erectly or hanging pendently.
The inflorescence of Heliconia is the usual focus of interest because it is not only complex; it is usually very colorful to humans and of course to its pollinators the hummingbirds and insects. The boat-like bracts are colorful, usually in hues of red, yellow, orange and even pink or combinations of these mixed with green markings and various splashes. The bracts are smooth in some species to wooly in others. They may be arranged spirally or distichously (oppositely on one plane) on a central connecting stem called a rachis. Each bract holds several true flowers, which may protrude boldly or peep shyly from the bracts. Individual flowers fall away after one day. If pollination has taken place, fruits will develop. In the American species the pea sized fruits are blue. The South Pacific species produce red or orange fruits. The fruits are drupes. That is to say they are plum-like in structure, fleshy tissue surrounds seed, which are encased in hard, bony covering. There may be up to three seeds per fruit.
Typically, heliconias grow naturally in lowland to mid elevation humid tropical areas. Many if not most, occur in light gap areas, along rivers and such and some are even pioneer plants along road cuts. Moisture is always available even for those species, which are native to seasonally dry areas. They are fast growing plants, which easily take advantage of soil fertility. Understanding these factors should help in the understanding of Heliconia cultivation.
In cultivation, a plant is often started from a rhizome division, which includes at least one erect pseudostem. We start our plants in a sterile potting medium, in a pot just large enough to accommodate the plant. All leaf blades are removed or at least reduced to slow water loss through transpiration. The pot is then put in a warm, lightly shaded spot and watered regularly to keep it moist but not perpetually soggy. Some growers find it useful to place a paper cup or other shield over the cut end of the pseudostem to prevent excess water from entering and accelerating decay. Once new sprouts are seen at the base of the plant it is considered strong enough to be planted directly into the garden. If the season is cool or dry, the plant will be held until warmer, wetter weather is the expected norm.
It is my practice to plant heliconias four to six inches deeper than they are in their sprouting container. I also place a slow release fertilizer directly into the planting hole. Planting tablets 13-5-13 give a practical boost to the newly planted Heliconia. This fertilizer was formulated to be used by rice farmers in wet conditions and is very slow release. My rate of use is 3 tablets per gallon container plus one extra. Since heliconias are fast growing plants they are heavy feeders. In addition to the fertilizer placed in the planting hole, the plants get a hefty fertilizing four times per year. I find that "Palm Special" with micronutrients applied every three months, starting in March, keeps the plants strong and productive. If winter weather seems especially cool and dry, the December fertilizing is skipped.
Maintaining a layer of organic mulch around Heliconia plants serves several purposes.
As wonderful as heliconias can be in the landscape, basic grooming always improves their look. Some species are naturally easier to maintain at their best. Here are the basic steps to keeping your plants looking tidy.
Literature on Heliconias is somewhat limited but there are two books that one may start with.
The most popular volume to date has been Heliconia - An Identification Guide by Fred Berry and W. John Kress, Smithsonian Institution Press -1991, ISBN 1-56098-007-9. Purchase this book from online from The Shop at Fairchild.
A second useful book, in Spanish only is Heliconias - Llamaradas de la Selva Colombiana by W. John Kress, Julio Betancur, Beatriz Echeverry, Cristina Uribe Editores Ltda.. -1999, ISBN 958-95783-3-0
The Heliconia Society International is also a very good source of information about Heliconias and related plants. Its publication is very informative and biennial meetings afford an excellent opportunity for hobbyists, scientists and growers from around the world, to meet and exchange information.