Once called “wild bananas” and “false birds-of-paradise” , this plant now answers to heliconia

By Ralph E. Mitchell

Heliconias do great in Southwest Florida!  This native to tropical America easily adapts to a variety of home landscapes and sports colorful bracts of red, yellow, orange, and pink which adorn deep green leafy plants from one and one-half foot to over fifteen feet tall.  From sun to part shade, heliconia can handle many settings and is a real tropical point of interest.

In general design, heliconias have spear-shaped leaves on long stems.  Their “flowers” are made up of colorful leaf-like bracts which house the real flowers.   Most heliconias are best in part sun/part shade sites where they should be provided with rich organic soils and plenty of room to spread.  Although heliconias do best in well-drained soils, they have the ability to tolerate wet soils during the growing season and do appreciate regular moisture.  On the other hand, these perennials do not tolerate drought well, and have a very low tolerance to salty conditions.  Prepare new planting beds with compost to enrich the soil.  Heliconias reproduce via rhizomes – thick underground stems.  As these rhizomes may be fairly close to the surface, plant new specimens a few inches deeper to offer better stem support.  Some resulting shoots can fall over.  Heliconia are by nature relatively tall, and may need some artificial support in the form of a stake to hold up the plant; especially if it has a heavy flower.

Like their relatives, the bananas, heliconias are considered heavy feeders.   As such, use any general purpose fertilizer with micronutrients as per label directions about three times per year.   In some areas, helconias can grow and flower practically year-round.  In our area, except in the warmest spots, most heliconia will stop flowering and growing  during winter – some may even suffer dieback from frosts and freezes.  Not to worry, the rhizomes  generally over-winter and sprout back as the weather warms.  You may need to clean-up the old leaves as part of plant sanitation and for neatness sake at this time.  Keep  in mind that once a heliconia stalk flowers, that whole cane eventually dies back.  Individual stalks that were frozen may not flower.  Flowers most commonly emerge from sound, one-year old stems .  Some types of heliconia may take longer and flower from two-year old canes.

And now for the bad news.  Sometimes heliconias can be “too successful”.  Not to say that they are officially invasive, but they can rapidly take over a bed and may even move out of a planting into the lawn.  Root barriers can help as well as an occasional cleaning out of the bed and division and resetting of rhizomes.  Be a friend and give some away as well.  Some small forms of heliconia can be planted in large containers which also helps keep them in bounds.

As there are so many varieties of heliconias to choose from, I will leave the selection up to you.  In addition to making an excellent landscape plant, these plants also provide long-lasting, exotic  cut flowers.   Heliconias offer an easy-to-grow tropical flowering perennial plant that can quickly transform your landscape into a showstopper!   I started with just a few heliconia plants, and the rest is history!  For more information on tropical flowering plants suitable for our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer.  Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area.  Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – http://charlotte.ifas.ufl.edu/horticulture/Plant%20Clinics%20Schedule.pdf .

Resources:
Gardening Solutions (2017) – Heliconia – The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
McAvoy, G. (2017) Hendry County Horticulture News – Heliconia Impart a Tropical Look. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS – Henry County.
Gilman, G. F. & Meerow, A.  (2014) Heliconia spp. Heliconia.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Schmidt, E. (2017) Heliconias for Central Florida.  Leu Gardens.
Watson, D. P. & Smith, R. R. (2017) Ornamental Heliconias – University of Hawaii – Cooperative Extension Service – Circular 482
The Florida-Friendly Landscaping Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design (2010) The University of Florida Extension Services, IFAS.

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