Brighten up Tropical Homes and Gardens with Heliconias

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tropical heliconias

Heliconias are a genus of tropical plants that are much sought after by florists and home decorators because they produce spectacular flower bracts that immediately give any flower arrangement a tropical feel. Some species of heliconia produce bracts that last for many weeks, whilst others last for just a few days. Some heliconias produce bracts that hang down from their main stems (pendulous), while others are upright.

They are easy to grow in the wet tropics. Heliconias can also be grown in the dry tropics, but there they will require regular watering because most species are not very drought tolerant. Most heliconias prefer full sun, but some of the species with larger flowers do better in partial shade, especially when sheltered from the wind.

Probably the best known and most sought-after heliconia is the Hanging Lobster Claw plant (H. rostrata) which is native to Central America and one of the national flowers of Bolivia. A similar looking species is H. pendula, which is sometimes called the Hanging Crab Claw plant. The flower bracts of both species make excellent centerpieces for large flower arrangements and are often seen in the foyers of resort hotels in tropical countries.

Another well-known species with pendulous flower bracts is H. collinsiana which hasn’t been given a common name in most countries, but in some places is called the Hanging Lobster Claw plant as well, so you’ll need to be specific when looking for this species. The red bracts of H. collinsiana are much more widely spaced than H. rostrata so it’s easy to tell the difference.

The species that produce the pendulous bracts of flowers tend to be the larger growers in the Heliconia genus with banana-type leaves growing up to 3-4 meters tall. The species with upright flower bracts are more in the 1-3 meter high range. The pendulous species also tend to be the ones that tolerate the most shade, but unless they get sun for half the day (or filtered sun through the whole day) they won’t produce as many flowers. H. latispatha is an exception – that’s an upright species with widely space crab claw type bracts that tolerate up to 70 percent shade. A similar looking species called H. schiedeana is a good choice for higher elevations because it’s more cold-tolerant than most other species of heliconia.

Another popular species for large flower arrangements is H. wagneriana which has similar looking bracts to the pendulous species but in an upright form. In some countries it’s also called the Lobster Claw plant, but in others it’s called the Rainbow plant. Also sought after by flower arrangers is H. caribaea. A variety called ‘Purpurea’ has waxy whitish stems that provide a nice contrast to the deep red bracts.

The smaller species of Heliconia that produce flowers on shorter upright stems generally flower more prolifically that the large pendulous ones, but the flower bracts don’t last as long – usually a couple of days to a week depending on species and cultivar. If you’d like a regular supply of cut flowers though the year, then try to plant as many different species as are available in your locality to take advantage of different flowering times.

My personal favourites in the smaller heliconia species for flower arranging are H. angusta (there are both red and yellow varieties), H. farinosa (also known as H. brasiliensis) and H. psittacorum. Within these species there are many different cultivars available which provide a big choice of striking colour combinations. H. psittacorum is a common species throughout the tropical world. They are often just called psittacorums.

Psittacorums are fast and vigorous growers so are an excellent plant for getting greenery and colour into a new tropical garden. But their rhizomes do run quickly, like many bamboos, so you will need to plant them either where they can be contained within garden beds or plant in an area where they have plenty of space to run. Although vigorous growers, the roots won’t cause damage to foundations like bamboo, so they can be planted close to the house.

A lot of gardening books will tell you that heliconias need rich organic soil with lots of water and lots of fertilizer. That’s true if you want a prize-winning display of heliconias all year round and a daily supply of cut flowers for indoor decoration, but many heliconias are very forgiving and will still produce a lot of flowers in less than ideal conditions. Before I moved to where I now live, I grew a clump of psittacorums in a part of our garden which was rocky clay, I rarely watered them (of course that wasn’t necessary during the rainy season) and I rarely fertilized them, but I still had a steady supply of cut flowers from the clump.

Psittacorums and some of the other smaller species of heliconia are good for growing in large pots in sunny areas as well, but you will need to keep them regularly watered and fed to keep them flowering, as they don’t like to dry out. When they get too crowded for the pot, you can take remove the clump from the pot and cut the root ball into three or four pieces, plant one back into the pot and the others in the garden.

Keep the plants looking tidy by trimming off dead leaves or flower heads with secateurs. Whatever way you grow your heliconias, you’ll find it satisfying to have them in your garden as they will provide both colour in the landscape and a ready source of cut flowers for the house.

Header image: © Erik Karits

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