Heliconia Collection Descriptions

By David Bar-Zvi,  Former Curator of Herbaceous Monocots


Heliconia aurantiaca

Subgenus: Stenochlamys  Section: Zingiberastrum

Native: Mexico to Panama

Heliconia aurantiaca (left) is one of the more charming Heliconias for a shady garden. The ginger-like plants bear the clear orange and yellow flowers in the late months of winter and early spring.



 Heliconia bihai


Subgenus: Heliconia  Section: Heliconia

Native: West Indies and Northern South America

Some Heliconia bihai (right) clones found at Fairchild Tropical Garden:

  • 'Yellow Dancer'
  • 'Giant Lobster Claw'
  • 'Claw One'
  • 'Claw Two'
  • 'Bubble Gum Dream'
  • 'Nappi Yellow'

This heliconia made its way into horticulture fairly early on. Over Heliconia bihai's very large range, many color forms have evolved, mostly in hues of red and yellow. Many clones have been named in cultivation based upon these variations.

In parts of its range, particularly in the Islands of the West Indies such as Grenada it shares pollinators with other species of Heliconia and several natural interspecific hybrids have been found.

The plants are variable in size from 5 feet to over 18 feet tall. Thriving in full sun to light shade, erect inflorescences may be produced most of the year but more particularly in the warmest months. Individual inflorescences last for many weeks, even when cut, making them important for the floral trade.

Heliconia caribaea

Subgenus: Heliconia Section: Heliconia

Native: West Indies

Some clones found at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden:

  • 'Purpurea'
  • 'Gold'
  • 'Flash'

Imposing plants 12 feet to 20 feet tall. Inflorescences are dramatic and large with many color forms chosen for cultivation. Red, and yellow with greens and orange admixtures are seen throughout the range.

Heliconia caribaea is well suited to growing conditions in southern Florida and can be very impressive in the right location. Conditions of high light to full sun, plentiful moisture and fertilizer and organically rich soil will produce stately plants with blue-green to dark green leaves often covered in white wax. The rhizomes are short, so the plant forms a nice clump. Grooming is done by removing aging stems with faded flowers, damaged leaves, and those stems, which are in the way.

As with most of the heliconias, it is necessary dig up the clump, divide it and replant a portion of the plant after the soil is enriched with organic matter and slow release fertilizer.

Heliconia caribaea is also popular in the cut flower trade because they last for weeks as a cut flower.


Heliconia chartacea  

Subgenus: Griggsia Section: Pendulae

Native: Amazon Basin, Guiana to Ecuador

A very striking, pendent inflorescence immediately draws attention with pink or somewhat darker bracts, lightly coated with a silvery wax. The leaves characteristically seem to shred even in the stillest environment. Possibly for soil related problems, Heliconia chartacea (left) seems to not fare well for long in southern Florida gardens. We have found that container growing seems to be more successful. Perhaps a well-adapted clone in the right location has a better chance as one or two local growers have shown. In almost all the most popular of cut heliconias when they are available. H. chartacea can form ornamental clumps of gray-green plants with lovely inflorescences though most of the year. These flowers sold as "Sexy Pink Heliconia" are among the most exotic heliconias.


Heliconia collinsiana


Subgenus: Griggsia Section: Pendulae

Native: Southern Mexico to Nicaragua

One of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden's favorite heliconias, Heliconia collinsiana (right) has graced the planting in the entrance room of the conservatory for years. The medium tall (10-15 foot) silvery-gray, waxy leaves tower above the showy, red inflorescences, which hang down to a good viewing level. This species is also a good South Florida garden subject. Given medium shade to almost full sun and a moist but well drained root zone, it responds to regular applications of slow release fertilizer.

Characteristically the stems and underface of the leaves are covered with a white wax, which comes off upon handling. The leaves are quite sturdy and not especially prone to tearing. The flower season is long, usually from the warming, lengthening days of May to November or until the weather begins to cool at night. Not at all invasive, it is easy to maintain in the garden.

A distinguishing feature of this species is the golden yellow color of the flowers, which poke out of the bracts. In the native habitat the flowers are visited by hummingbirds which act as pollinators.


Heliconia episcopalis

Subgenus: Heliconia Section: Episcopales

Distribution: Amazonian South America - Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guyana, Surinam, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru

Heliconia episcopalis (left) plants are usually found along watercourses and may be in full sun or moderate shade. They are found at the edges of seasonally flooded forest but generally not growing in water. The sturdy plants can even endure some short duration drought. Once established, the plants will flower most of the year with peculiar, erect, arrowhead shaped reddish orange to yellow inflorescences with black, spent flowers peeking from bracts. As the inflorescence elongates, older bracts abscise leaving a series of scars subtending a group of orange and yellow bracts, which could bring to mind the shape of an episcopal miter; hence the specific epithet.

Its habit is musoid and the overall size is between 3 feet to 7 feet or so. The sturdy foliage is medium green without gray wax. Its habit is not invasive and it can make an interesting landscape subject.

Heliconia latispatha


Subgenus: Heliconia section: tortex

Distribution: Mexico, Central America, South America. Very widely cultivated.

Heliconia latispatha (right) is found frequently along road cuts and forest edges growing in full sun to half shade. There is some color variation in the bracts ranging from orange to red. A few cultivated varieties have been named.

Typical Form - a commonly cultivated heliconia throughout the tropical world with erect inflorescences, of spirally arranged bracts appearing all year but more abundantly from late spring through summer. The true flowers are light green with dark green margins. The inflorescence lasts for several weeks on the plant and can last for several days cut. The inflorescences are held above the foliage but some special grooming may be needed in order for the inflorescences to be seen among the leaves. This species is a vigorous grower and may quickly occupy a large space, so planting space must always be carefully considered prior to placing in the garden.

'Orange Gyro' is a tall plant, usually between eight and twelve feet tall with medium green foliage often with a very thin maroon margin. The 7 to 17 spirally arranged floral bracts are completely orange with a green keel. The rachis joining the bracts is greenish yellow; the basal bract usually has a terminal leaflet. This is one of the earliest heliconias introduced to cultivation in southern Florida.

'Red-Yellow Gyro' is similar to 'Orange Gyro' in size range but varies in color. The floral bracts are mostly red with a small area of gold at the base. The rachis is yellow gold shading to green.

'Distans' is relatively short at less than six feet tall, usually in the range of three to four feet. The floral bracts are mostly red except at the base, there they are yellow. The joining rachis is yellow.


Heliconia mathiasiae

Subgenus: Stenochlamys Section: Cannastrum

Native: Mexico to Costa Rica

Heliconia mathiasiae (left) is one of the potentially great plants for subtropical and subtropical gardens. The dark green, ginger-like plant forms a tight clump of stems, which can reach 9 to 14 feet tall. Each mature stem sports an erect, showy inflorescence of red bracts and bright yellow flowers with green tips.

At Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, we have recorded flowers in each month of the year.

Regular fertilizing will keep the leaves shiny, dark green. Half day to all day full sun will keep the plants strong and blooming.

 Heliconia metallica

Subgenus: Stenochlamys  Section: Cannastrum

Native: Honduras to Bolivia

Heliconia metallica (right) is useful as a garden plant, more for its handsome foliage than its pretty but comparatively less significant inflorescences. The leaves are satiny, dark green with a light midrib. The underside is often wine purple. The pink or red flowers and greenish bracts are held on long pedicels away from the leaves.

Under cultivation, H. metallica shows heat stress if not shaded during the hottest part of the day.


Heliconia pendula

Subgenus: Griggsia Section: Pendulae

Native: Guyana, northern South America

This moderately sized species, about eight feet tall under South Florida conditions, is a beautiful plant with its waxy gray-green leaves and stems and its spring presentation of pendent inflorescences. The red bracts and white flowers hang out seductively to attract pollinating hummingbirds and other garden visitors.

This plant has thrived at Fairchild in a semi-shady area for many years with little special care and grooming.

Heliconia pendula (left) may be distinguished from the similar H. collinsiana by the smaller stature of H. pendula and more particularly its white flowers. (H. collinsiana  has yellow flowers protruding from larger waxy, red bracts.)


Heliconia rostrata


Subgenus: Griggsia section: Rostrata

Distribution: Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia.

Heliconia rostrata (right) is found frequently along seasonally flooded Amazon tributaries at relatively low elevation. There are several plants which have been given special cultivar status because of distinctive characteristics exhibited by individual plants or populations.

Typical Form - a popular heliconia throughout the tropical world with pendent inflorescences of red and yellow bracts appearing in late spring and early summer. The inflorescence lasts for several weeks on the plant but is generally very short lived as a cut flower. In winter the foliage often becomes very lacerated. Removing the worst of the battered leaves will go a long way to improving the appearance of the plant in the garden.

'Cervanda' is a tall plant with gray-green, sturdy leaves and orange-red bracts with yellow margins spaced apart on a relatively small inflorescence for H. rostrata. It tends to flower in summer.

'Isola' was named by grower Mr. Joseph Fondeur of Davie, Florida to honor his mother. It is a sturdy plant with a broad inflorescence of closely spaced bracts of pinkish red and yellow, united by a magenta rachis. The inflorescence is of good keeping quality as a cut flower.

'Ten Day' resembles the typical form in most respects except that the inflorescences last very well as cut flowers. Leaves are also quite resistant to wind damage.


Heliconia stricta

Subgenus: Heliconia Section: Heliconia

Native: Ecuador to Bolivia

Some clones found at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden include:

  • 'Iris Bannochie'
  • 'Bob Wilson'
  • 'Dwarf Jamaican'

Heliconia stricta (left) is a wide-ranging and variable species with many cultivar selections. It's ease of culture and prolific nature has made it important in the cut flower industry.

The plants are not tall, usually less than 6 feet but inflorescences are invariably showy if sometime a little hidden behind some foliage. One clone, H. stricta 'Dwarf Jamaican' flowers at a height of 18 inches or less. Although many plants bear flowers at any season, we find that winter months are the showiest.

The relatively large inflorescences sport colors of vermilion to red, sometimes two toned with cream or yellow.

Some clones have colorful leaves, red mid-rib with wine purple undersides. A clone known as 'Sharonii' was chosen for tissue culture because it was so strikingly beautiful.

Several clones are good garden subjects in southern Florida. Other selections need to be grown in confined space lest they exceed the garden space given to them.

 Heliconia subulata


Subgenus: Stenochlamys Section: Cannastrum

Native: Ecuador to Argentina & southern Brazil

Heliconia subulata (right) is the most southerly occurring species in the family. This factor alone may account for its proven hardiness to cold. An occasional brief encounter with freezing temperatures leaves it unscathed. In southern Florida, it seems to be in perpetual bloom. The leaves are gray-green and sturdy. The long lasting inflorescence is presented above the leaves but occasionally on separate, leafless stems. They are attractive, long lasting as cut flowers.

As do all heliconias, H. subulata grows by spreading laterally, but are not really aggressively invasive. Occasionally it will need to be dug up, reduced and replanted in renewed soil. Full sun or some light shade suits it well.