Green Culture Singapore
Feature Article for March 2007
Pictures & Text by Ong Chong Ren
Online on 3 Apr 2007


Above: Heliconia - bold, flashy and attention-seeking.

Bold, flashy and attention-seeking. From hot pink to forest green, lemon yellow to shades of burgundy dark as night, Heliconia inflorescences command attention the same way a stop sign demands of motorists. Blooms can take the form of stiff and upright lobster claws, or hanging spirals of colourful bracts. A vast range of flower forms, coupled with a mind-boggling array of vibrant colours, are the main reason why Heliconia form the centerpiece of so many tropical landscapes all around the world. Indeed, a single well-established colony of Heliconia immediately adds a sense of elegance and class to any garden large or small. Contrary to popular belief, not all Heliconia grow to uncontrollably large proportions; numerous cultivars exist that are able to grow and thrive in a simple balcony pot, while rewarding the grower with an unending supply of magnificent blooms.

Heliconia are close relatives of gingers, bananas, birds-of-paradise and traveler's palms. There are approximately 350 species making up the single genus, with the bulk of them originating from Central and South America. Oddly enough, a small group of about 6 species have evolved separately in the South Pacific, and these are typically characterized by having green inflorescences.

Being rhizomatous in habit, Heliconia rapidly occupy any available area through the production of adventitious underground stems. They are herbaceous or non-woody plants, with a 'pseudostem' made up of overlapping leaf petiole sheaths that offer the leaves and flowers mechanical support. Each stem can only flower once, after which the entire stem deteriorates, dries up and collapses. Plants can range from 15 cm in height to more than 6 metres tall, depending on species and growing conditions.

In their natural habitat, Heliconia typically occupy clearings on the forest floor in humid tropical rainforests, especially in places where sunlight can penetrate through the leaf canopy, and also along river banks. Understanding the native growing conditions of Heliconia should aid in providing the appropriate conditions for growing them.

Habit of a Heliconia.




Heliconia typically thrive in well-draining soil that is very rich in decaying organic matter, which the Heliconia derive their nutrients from. Garden loam enriched with leaf compost would be ideal, with an addition of a small amount of sand should the soil pack too tightly to prevent proper drainage.


Because Heliconia grow in bright clearings, it would be good if Heliconia can be provided with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day, as this would encourage continuous flowering. Lower amounts of sunlight would result in the production of lush foliage, with flowers making a less common appearace. Plants would tend to grow taller and larger with less light. Having said that, there are also species of Heliconia which enjoy shade. Heliconia pendula and Heliconia stricta 'Carli's Sharonii' are some such examples.


Heliconia love water. They should be watered as often as possible, at least once in the morning and once in the evening. The soil should never be allowed to dry out completely. Rotting of established plants as a result of over-watering is unlikely as long as the soil is free-draining. In fact, some species of Heliconia can even be adapted to grow completely in water, such as Heliconia standleyi and Heliconia densiflora 'Fireflash'. However, the watering of newly-planted rhizomes is a completely different matter, as they are prone to fungal attacks in excessively water-retentive soil.


A large Heliconia can consume enormous amounts of fertilizer, and grow to immense proportions. Bonemeal is an ideal choice if one desires to make their Heliconia reach huge dimensions. However, regular fertilizing with slow-release fertilizer of NPK ratio 13:5:13 works just as well. (In fact, I don't even fertilize my Heliconia)


Dead leaves and stems should always be removed. Spent stems should be cut after flowering to maintain the neatness of the colony. Chop the stems as close to the ground as possible. The remaining stumps can be removed by pulling them out of the ground once they have dried up completely. Should the colony produce too many leaves obstructing view of the inflorescences, leaves can be removed from strategic positions so as to show off the Heliconia flowers.

Above: Raising Heliconia from rhizomes.


By rhizomes

If one were to order Heliconia through the internet, they would usually arrive in the form of rhizome segments. Rhizomes should be dipped in dilute fungicide solution before being planted in free-draining soil. Make sure that the rhizome is not planted too deep, but at the same level at which the plant was originally growing in soil, which can be determined by markings on the rhizome itself. A separate school of thought claims that by planting the rhizomes in a 'soil-free' mixture of perlite, vermiculite and sterilized potting compost, the chances of successful sprouting would be increased. After planting, the tip of the stalks where the pseudostems were chopped from should be wrapped in plastic and secured with a rubber band, to make sure that water does not enter it and cause rotting. This also helps to seal moisture within the rhizome.


Above: Seeds of the Heliconia.


By Seed

Heliconia seeds are rather difficult to germinate. They have a rather long germination period ranging from a month to a year, with unpredictable germination rates. Yet, this should not discourage people from growing Heliconia from seed, as many rare species are obtained this way. Seeds should be scarified with sandpaper before planting, because the seed coat is extremely thick. Rubbing parts of the seed coat till the endosperm is just reached would allow water to enter the seed more quickly, thus shortening the germination period.



1. By inflorescence form
Left: Erect (upwards) e.g. H. stricta 'Bucky'
Middle: Pendulous (hanging) H. chartacea 'Sexy Pink'
Right: Contorted H. collinsiana x bourgaeana 'Pedro Ortiz'

Left: Distichous (arranged on opposite sides in the same plane), e.g. H. rostrata
Right: Spiral, e.g. H. chartacea 'Sexy Pink'


2. By leaf form
Left: Musoid (banana-like leaves) e.g. H. bihai
Middle: Zingiberoid (ginger-like leaves) e.g. H. hirsuta
Right: Cannoid (canna-like leaves) e.g. H. metallica



The following photos depict Heliconia commonly grown in public by the National Parks Board. Do any of them look familiar?

Heliconia psittacorum

A relatively small, yet floriferous Heliconia. There are many varieties available In the market, all of which are equally easy to cultivate. However, it has a tendency to become extremely invasive without proper management, and may become impossible to eradicate from the ground.

Heliconia psittacorum x spathocircinata

Commonly known by its cultivar name, 'Golden Torch', this H. psittacorum hybrid, has the potential to become rather invasive. However, the golden yellow bracts are attractive, especially when planted en masse.

Heliconia rostrata

This Heliconia is one of the most easily cultivated pendant species, forming long, hanging inflorescences that can carry up to over 20 bracts. However, it has a tendency to develop rather spindly stems if not fertilized sufficiently, forming sparse and untidy clumps.

Heliconia x nickeriensis

Heliconia x nickeriensis is a hybrid between H. marginata and H. psittacorum, this Heliconia requires sufficient light to initiate flowering, without which it tends to form large, dense clumps of waxy dark green leaves without producing inflorescences.



Now, for some far more exotic Heliconia Just keep in mind that all of the following Heliconia can be grown easily here. Given the appropriate conditions, they will thrive and flourish with minimal care, rewarding the grower with magnificent and numerous blooms. Why not try your hand at Heliconia today?
Top, from left to right: H. lingulata, H. bihai 'Peachy Pink', H. stricta cultivar.
Bottom, from left to right: H. champneiana cultivar, H. bihai 'Kuma Negro', H. 'Cinnamon Twist'.


Top, from left to right: H. vellerigera, Close-up of hairy bracts of H. vellerigera, H. mariae.
Bottom, from left to right: H. stilesii, H. 'Temptress', H. x flabellata.



Chong Ren is an active member of Green Culture Singapore. He has an avid interest in exotic tropical plants, especially Heliconia, bromeliads and orchids, which make up most of his garden. Although currently serving his National Service in the army, he still makes time for his various horticultural pursuits. He hopes to be able to go on exploratory trips to other countries and discover newer species of plants and animals after completing his university education.



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