Article for March 2007
Pictures & Text by Ong Chong Ren
on 3 Apr 2007
- bold, flashy and attention-seeking.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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
Raising Heliconia from rhizomes.
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.
Seeds of the 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
By leaf form
Musoid (banana-like leaves) e.g. H. bihai
Middle: Zingiberoid (ginger-like leaves) e.g.
Right: Cannoid (canna-like leaves) e.g. H.
following photos depict Heliconia commonly grown in public
by the National Parks Board. Do any of them look familiar?
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.
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 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.
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?
from left to right: H. lingulata, H. bihai
'Peachy Pink', H. stricta cultivar.
from left to right: H. champneiana cultivar,
H. bihai 'Kuma Negro', H. 'Cinnamon Twist'.
from left to right: H. vellerigera, Close-up
of hairy bracts of H. vellerigera, H. mariae.
from left to right: H. stilesii, H. 'Temptress',
H. x flabellata.
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.