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For the Love of Heliconia

The author lives in a quiet seaside community in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.

Heliconia never fails to amaze and inspire us with its captivating beauty.

Heliconia never fails to amaze and inspire us with its captivating beauty.

Heliconia is a tropical perennial known for its spectacularly whimsical and flamboyant blooms!

Native to tropical Americas and South Pacific, heliconia belongs to the fascinating Heliconiaceae family. Its common names include lobster-claw plant, parrot flower, or toucan beak flower.

There are over 200 varieties of heliconia! Many of them grow wild in the rainforests of tropical regions worldwide. Unfortunately, some are rare or endangered due to habitat loss and climate change.

Heliconia holds a high ranking in the global cut flower trade. The top growers and exporters of heliconia are Costa Rica, Columbia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, and India.

Heliconia psittacorum inflorescences display many vibrant shades and hues.

Heliconia psittacorum inflorescences display many vibrant shades and hues.

Bracts and Flowers

Heliconia comes in all sizes and shapes and a dazzling array of colors: red, fuchsia, magenta, yellow, peach, orange, pink, maroon, lavender, and yes, green!

The inflorescences form at the top of a leaf stalk. They can be upright (erect) or hanging (pendulant). The brightly colored parts of the inflorescence are not petals but modified leaves – also called bracts. The actual flowers are inconspicuous, peeking out from the bracts like little fingers!

The bracts are often interwoven, thick, and waxy. Some heliconia cultivars produce extraordinary hairy bracts! Other varieties form enormous bracts 10-12 inches long! Rainwater collects inside each bract, creating a home for small rainforest creatures like tree frogs, lizards, and snakes.

Small, unimpressive flowers can be seen inside the bracts of this Heliconia bihai variety.

Small, unimpressive flowers can be seen inside the bracts of this Heliconia bihai variety.

Some heliconia cultivars have elongated inflorescence panicles 8-10 feet long.

Some heliconia cultivars have elongated inflorescence panicles 8-10 feet long.

Rhizomes

Heliconia root systems resemble a large clump of ginger root, known as rhizomes. Their primary function is to store the plant's nutrients to produce new growth. After a matured stem has done flowering and withered away, a young stem quickly shoots up from the underground rhizomes, repeating the flowering cycle.

Note: Heliconia rhizomes may spread aggressively in the garden. The plant could grow out of control into a large, dense bush that takes over nearby flower beds! To fix this problem, dig up the rhizomes, cut them into smaller pieces, and start new heliconia plants or give them away to fellow gardeners.

This heliconia grows in an upright habit with lovely peach-apricot colored flower bracts.

This heliconia grows in an upright habit with lovely peach-apricot colored flower bracts.

Growing heliconia

Heliconia only grows in year-round warm tropical climates. It loves blazing hot temperatures and high humidity! During some occasional spells of dry weather or lack of rains, its leaves will turn yellow and shrivel up, and the plant will stop flowering.

If a drought ensues, the entire plant may die back to the ground. However, its rhizomes are still alive, staying dormant in the deep moist soil, and will quickly sprout new stems once the rainy season returns.

Dangling, graceful flower bracts of some spectacular pendulant heliconia species.

Dangling, graceful flower bracts of some spectacular pendulant heliconia species.

The brightly hued flower bracts sometimes take on a bizarre, otherworldly shape!

The brightly hued flower bracts sometimes take on a bizarre, otherworldly shape!

Heliconia prefers humus-rich and slightly acidic soils. Mulching is an excellent way to keep the soil moisture consistent. Also, adding compost made of kitchen scraps (fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells) and garden wastes (grass clippings, dead leaves) will keep the plant happy and healthy.

The best way to propagate heliconia is to divide the rhizomes and plant them elsewhere.

Young heliconia will take at least 2-3 years to produce flowers. Once established, heliconia is low maintenance, except for occasional pruning of old foliage and spent blooms.

A beautiful purple-and-gold heliconia with its magnificent flower bracts and foliage.

A beautiful purple-and-gold heliconia with its magnificent flower bracts and foliage.

Landscaping with heliconia

Heliconia is a hardy, easy-to-grow garden plant in tropical climates.

For cooler climates, plant it in containers or pots, and move it into an indoor space or greenhouse for protection during cold winter. Heliconia is highly sensitive to frost, and its rhizomes will die if the ground freezes.

Combine multiple cultivars with different colors to create a vivid, eye-catching contrast. For example, crimson red and orange heliconia go well together, giving the garden a sensational "hot" look. Other varieties in pastel shades of pink or lavender will bring a mellow “Zen” touch.

Heliconia psittacorum is excellent in mass planting (flower beds or hedges), creating a stunning visual effect – an endless field of orange, yellow, and pink blossoms!

Because of its brilliant, showy colors, heliconia is ideal for planting in the front yard to maximize the property’s curb appeal. Hanging or pendulant varieties look impressive when planted next to a rock wall, a garden fence, or along the driveway.

Heliconia caribaea 'Yellow' is known for its outstanding bright lemon colored flower bract.

Heliconia caribaea 'Yellow' is known for its outstanding bright lemon colored flower bract.

Gold dust green gecko - commonly seen in Hawaii - is a big fan of the sweet heliconia nectar!

Gold dust green gecko - commonly seen in Hawaii - is a big fan of the sweet heliconia nectar!

Flower arrangements with heliconia

Heliconia adds an unmistakable modern trendy look to any floral arrangements, especially when combined with other tropical flowers like anthurium or orchid.

A single stem of fiery red Heliconia bihai ‘Giant Lobster Claw’ in a tall vase will add a bold dramatic look to any room. In contrast, a profusion of Heliconia chartacea ‘Sexy Pink’ in a large bouquet is simply breathtaking!

In Hawaii, cut heliconia flowers are available year-round at farmers' markets or roadside fruit stands. The long-lasting flowers are popular in flower arrangements for weddings, funerals, and cultural events. They also decorate floats in holiday parades or hula dance performing stages.

Cut heliconia flowers can last up to 2 weeks in an arrangement.

Cut heliconia flowers can last up to 2 weeks in an arrangement.

The author took the photos for this article in his garden (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 12b) and at Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens on the Big Island of Hawaii.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Viet Doan