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Heliconia spp. L. 1771
pronounced: hell-ih-KOH-nee-uh species
(Heliconiaceae – the heliconia family)
common name: Heliconia
Heliconia is named for Helicon, the mountain of the Muses in Greek mythology. It is a genus of some 200 species of flowering plants native to the tropical Americas and the Pacific islands as far west as Indonesia, with at least another few hundred hybrids and cultivars derived from these species. It is the only genus in the family Heliconiaceae, and until recently was classified as a member of Musaceae, the banana family. Heliconias are native to Central America, the Caribbean islands, South America, some of the islands of the South Pacific, and Indonesia; their easy growth and brilliant, exotic show have made them favourite garden plants throughout the tropics and subtropics. They are becoming increasingly popular as landscaping plants, and also as potted plants and cut flowers in regions where they cannot be grown in the garden.
Heliconias are medium to large erect herbs, producing an underground rhizome system. Some are very rampant, capable of covering a significant area within a few years; others may clump more closely. The leaves are from about 15 to 300 cm long, depending on the species, oblong, growing opposite one another on non-woody petioles often longer than the leaf. The flowers are produced on long erect or drooping panicles, and consist of brightly-coloured waxy bracts, with small true flowers peeping out from the bracts. The inflorescence is nearly always terminal, and may last from several days to several months. The inflorescence bracts are usually red, yellow, or both, but they are sometimes green or even pink. The 6 or so species that have evolved separately in the South Pacific and Indonesia typically have green inflorescences.
From a gardening point of view, the usual method of propagation is by dividing the rhizomes. With the plant itself, the ‘stem’ is actually made up of rolled leaf bases, and the flowers emerge from the top of these pseudostems; so pruning is not advised. Each pseudostem will only flower once, so after flowering it is best to cut that stem out. Every three years or so, the entire clump should be dug up and a young sucker replaced in the hole.
These are very spectacular plants, and an asset to any tropical garden. Most varieties prefer full or part sun.
Heliconia psittacorum L.f. 1771
pronounced: hell-ih-KOH-nee-uh sit-uh-KOR-um
Common names: Parrot’s Beak, Golden Torch
Psittacus is Latin for a parrot, from the Greek ψιττακος (psittakos). This old style non-hybrid Heliconia from central America has large green leaves with a red edge. It usually remains around 120 cm but can become taller. It flowers all year and sets seed which aids in its distribution and it quickly colonizes areas with adequate moisture.
Heliconia rostrata Ruiz & Pav. 1802
pronounced: hell-ih-KOH-nee-uh ross-TRAH-tuh
Common name: Lobster Claw
Rostratus is Latin for ‘having a beak’. This is one of the most recognized and widely grown species, and one of the most beautiful. The inflorescence it produces is one of the most colourful. The mature plant normally starts to flower in the summer. The flowers last a long time and make an excellent cut flower. It is an easy grower in tropical areas but some room is required because the stalks can reach 200 cm in height. Bright shade is ideal with good moisture in the air and in the soil, but no soggy soils. Sheltered areas are better because strong winds can shred the leaves rather badly.
pronounced: hell-ih-KOH-nee-uh char-TAY-see-uh
Chartaceus is Latin for 'papery'. One of the nicest hanging heliconias, 'Sexy Pink' has a pink rachis fading into frosty pink bracts with delicate pale greenish white borders. It is a medium sized heliconia, reaching 200 cm tall. The leaves and inflorescences are covered with a white waxy bloom, and the leaves have a very characteristic shredded look. Blooms throughout the year.
Heliconia stricta Huber 1906 cv. ‘Dwarf Jamaican’
pronounced: hell-ih-KOH-nee-uh STRICK-tuh
Strictus is Latin for 'drawn tight'. This is a small plant seldom growing more than 80–90 cm tall, a favourite for growing in pots. The dainty inflorescence, about 12–13 cm long, is deep rose-coloured and evenly graded from pale to deep hues. Each bract has some green on its upper edge, matching the tiny green and white striped sepals. It grows in full sun to 60% shade. The parent species, Heliconia stricta, is actually quite a large heliconia, and grows in clumps to a height of nearly 2 m with almost the same spread. It has 2 m-long banana-type leaves. Its inflorescences are similar to those of the dwarf varieties, but a little larger.
Heliconia bourgaeana Petersen 1890 (syn. H. champneiana)
pronounced: hell-ih-KOH-nee-uh bor-joo-AH-nuh
Common name: Purple heliconia
Named for Eugene Bourgeau, 19th century French botanical collector, it grows to 120- 550 cm. The inflorescence is erect and flowering all year. The bracts are red, pink a crimson ripening to purple. Native to Mexico, Brazil & Costa Rica.
The caterpillars of the Banana Scab Moth Nacoleia octasema are a pest on these plants, attacking the young fruits.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2008-2011
Page last updated 10th December 2016