Heliconia spp.

Heliconia rostrata


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.

The caterpillars of the Banana Scab Moth Nacoleia octasema are a pest on these plants, attacking the young fruits.

Photographed in Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 11th January 2019