Prima donnas of the tropical garden

Story and Photos by Karinluise Calasant

I am a sucker for heliconias. It seems every year I cannot resist adding one, or two, of these bold, colorful, but elusive, members of the Zingiberales order to an already burgeoning garden. These cousins of gingers and bananas are the prima donnas of tropical and subtropical gardens – showy, dramatic, and mysterious. They can be used as specimens, screens, or the smaller, low-growing varieties can be mixed in with other plants. No matter how it’s used, a clump of heliconias can be spectacular and transform the most unimaginative landscape into a lush and exciting retreat.

Other than the parakeet flower (H. psittacorum), these tropical rhizomatous plants are not well known to many Florida gardeners. 

H. orthotricha cv. ‘Tricolor’ in bloom. A “quick” bloomer, ‘Tricolor’ can produce a bloom within six months of sprouting.

What are heliconias?
Heliconias are erect, medium to large perennial herbs that grow from rhizomes (underground stems). Their paddle-shaped leaves are usually green, but in some species may be tinted maroon, especially along the margins and undersides. A few species have showy, metallic-like foliage or zebra-like stripes of various shades of green.

If you’re up to the challenge and want a plant that can stop traffic with its incredible bloom, consider growing heliconias!

A species is considered “clumping” when new shoots appear, almost touching the mother plant. Clumping species are not invasive and are well-behaved.

“Spreading” (or running) heliconias have sprouts that appear 8 inches or more away from the mother plant. These can grow unchecked if not properly maintained. If you don’t want them running hither and yon, grow only the clumping varieties or be prepared to do some chasing – even the most rugged barrier may not confine them!

Inflorescence of H. orthotricha cv. ‘Tricolor’ just emerging from the stem.

Every shoot produced from the rhizome has the potential of producing a single bloom before dying. The blooms can be elusive because not every stem is guaranteed to bear a flower head. Temperature, moisture, available nutrients, sun exposure, and weather conditions all determine bloom production. In some years, it can be challenging to get some of the larger varieties to bloom in Florida because of cold, drought, or hurricanes – all enemies of heliconias.

Heliconias are considered fast growers. Depending on the variety, plants will usually reach blooming size (after sprouting from the rhizome) anywhere from six to 36 months. At any point, should anything happen to that particular stem, it is back to the beginning!

The colorful inflorescence of a heliconia is not a flower at all, but is composed of bracts. It may last several days or several months on the stem from which it emerged. Each inflorescence may have up to 50 flowers. Those true flowers inside the bracts are open for only one day.

H. stricta ‘Iris’ – Named for Barbadian horticulturist Iris Bannochie, this vigorous cultivar spreads rapidly and is a reliable bloomer. Its beauty is the reason I grow it – even though it can be invasive.

Hummingbirds are the exclusive pollinators of heliconias in the American tropics. Those heliconias native to the Eastern hemisphere (or “Old World”) rely on nectar-feeding bats for pollination. Bats feed at night and are color blind. With no need to attract birds and insects with colorful inflorescences, the bracts and flowers of these plants are primarily green. 

Heliconias are not salt or drought tolerant. They need water to bloom. In fact, as long as the soil is free-draining, it is impossible to overwater them. They are heavy feeders and love soil rich in organic matter. 

Parakeet flowers (H. psittacorum) are the most commercially cut and the most popular potted heliconias. They are offered for sale at garden centers throughout Florida. They’re seldom more than 4 feet tall and have names like ‘Sassy’ and ‘Strawberries and Cream’. These plants have good sun and heat tolerance and will often bloom year round. Unfortunately, H. psittacorum are active “walkers” (which means they don’t stay where they are put). They can be highly invasive and quite weedy. They also have low cold tolerance and can be short-lived. These less-than-desirable traits of H. psittacorum are why some gardeners shy away from planting heliconias. This is unfortunate because the Heliconia genus offers some incredible beauties! With more than 2,000 recognized species, there are plenty to choose from. Many are easy to grow and well-behaved. Some have good cold tolerance and do well throughout Florida. 

A popular variety for Florida gardens is the beautiful yellow and red H. rostrata, known as hanging lobster claw or false bird of paradise. These are “second-year” plants – meaning that plants need two years of freeze-free conditions before setting bloom.

H. rostrata, known as hanging lobster claw, is widely cultivated in Florida. It is tolerant of near or below freezing temperatures, especially if grown in a protected location.

Once you see the 16-inch tall bloom of H. caribaea, I guarantee you will be enthralled and want to grow it. The large, eye-catching flower heads of these Caribbean natives emerge from clumps of large, paddle-shape leaves, making a healthy clump that is beautiful with or without blooms. 

H. bihai has been crossed with H. caribaea resulting in many colorful cultivars, along with a degree of cold tolerance. Many grow well in south Florida and a few will grow as far north as Orlando.

Heliconias are considered “weeds” in the tropics, and not much attention is given to them. In Florida, things are different and growing some varieties can be challenging. 

This is H. bihai x H. caribaea ‘Jacquinii’ in our plant “nurturing area” ready to be planted out. It can produce a bloom within nine months of sprouting.

If you want to grow heliconias, I suggest starting with a rhizome, as potted plants are not always available. A rhizome is an underground stem that has buds in addition to roots. These can be obtained through mail-order sources, which is frequently the only way a particular species can be obtained.

After the rhizome has been planted and matured, a stem will produce a bloom (or flower head). Not every stem will produce a bloom 100 percent of the time and the stem will only bloom once before it is replaced by a sucker. The larger the variety, the longer it will take to produce a bloom. Some, such as H. stricta, may bloom the same year it’s planted; others can take up to two years or longer. This is why gardeners should treat blooms as wonderful surprises rather than what’s expected.

H. stricta ‘Carli’s Sharonii’ blooms all year and its small size (3-5 feet) makes it an excellent container plant.

These plants can be grown in a wide variety of soils, as long as they are free-draining and can be amended to overcome nutritional deficiencies. Top-dress the soil around them with well-rotted manure and other organic matter.

Heliconias are heavy feeders and need plenty of water – yet they don’t want to have “wet feet,” so the soil must drain quickly. The best way to feed them is with a balanced, soluble fertilizer. Pests and diseases don’t usually bother them, but a fungus can be their worst enemy. This occurs when the plant is overwatered and is planted in soil with poor drainage.

While many varieties have moderate to high cold tolerance, none can take freezing temperatures. Where frosts and freezes occur on a regular basis, the stems will be killed to the ground. If the ground doesn’t freeze, the rhizome will sprout again when the weather warms. Understand that if this happens on a regular basis, the chances of the plant blooming are slim to none, as heliconias need time to mature and set bloom. The larger varieties require the longest time. Many varieties can be grown in containers and moved indoors if a freeze is forecasted.

‘Golden Torch’ (H. psittacorum x H. spathocircinata) is free flowering and makes excellent cut flowers.

Heliconias bloom throughout the year with no specific schedule. There are certain varieties, however, that are “short-day” plants, where one can expect blooms when the amount of daylight shortens. 

Heliconias do not like wind and should be planted in sheltered locations. Needless to say, heliconias do not do well in hurricanes! If the stem is damaged severely, it may need to be cut back completely.

If you’re up to the challenge and want a plant that can stop traffic with its incredible bloom, consider growing heliconias!



Planting Heliconias
• Plant the rhizome in a container. 
• The container should be the smallest size the rhizome will fit in loosely. 
• Use a potting mixture that drains well and is rich in organic matter. 
• To maximize your chance of success, plant after the weather warms.
• Place the container in a bright, warm spot. 
• Ensure the soil is kept moist (not saturated) at all times. 
• The rhizome should sprout in four to eight weeks. The plant may be put into the garden after it has several leaves.



Caring for Heliconias
• All heliconias need regular maintenance. Keep the dead and damaged leaves removed. 
• Cut up the discarded leaves and stalks. Use them for mulch and organic fertilizer around the clumps.
• After the bloom has been cut for display or has faded on the plant, the stalk should be cut to the ground. The plant will produce suckers to take its place.
• Heliconias require a certain amount of light in order to bloom. Morning sun with a little afternoon shade is ideal.
• Plants that are actively growing require water. Do not allow the ground to dry out for any extended period of time.



Recommended Varieties
These are some reliable heliconias that have been growing in my east Martin County garden for more than 10 years. They have shown high cold tolerance and have suffered minor or no damage with near to slightly below freezing temperatures as far north as Orlando in Florida. 
• H. bihai: ‘Giant Lobster Claw’, ‘Yellow Dancer’
• H. bihai x H. caribaea: ‘Criswick’, ‘Hot Rio Nights’
• H. orthotricha: ‘Eden Pink’, ‘Imperial’, ‘Tricolor’
• H. psittacorum x H. spathocircinata: ‘Golden Torch’
• H. champneiana: ‘Maya Blood’
• H. caribaea and its cultivars do well in my garden, but most aren’t cold tolerant enough to reliably bloom north of Martin County.



Growth Habits
Heliconias are grouped according to their growth habits: 
• Musoid or banana-like: spirally arranged leaves with long petioles (leaf stalks)
• Cannoid or canna-like: upright leaves and short petioles
• Zingiberoid or ginger-like: leaves are more or less horizontally positioned; blades have short petioles. 
• They are also grouped by bloom (or flower head) forms: erect, pendent, or spiral.



Always check first with your locally owned garden center/plant retailer.
Plant Group Hawaii – plantgrouphawaii.com
Excelsa Gardens, Loxahatchee, Florida – excelsagardens.com (No retail shipping)
Note: No slight is intended for any supplier not mentioned.

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