Still amusing – heliconia in my garden

By Ralph E. Mitchell

My heliconia never fail to impress me – a blaze of red, orange and yellow in a sea of tropical green! I see my lobster-claw heliconia bracts beginning to emerge and I know my others will be in bloom soon.   Nothing says tropical like heliconia where lush foliage and flowers can make a real impact to your landscape.  These plants are so successful and the florist-quality flowers are produced in abundance.

Heliconia are herbaceous plants related to bananas that are normally found growing in tropical South and Central American rainforests under or at the edge of trees. Heliconia produce colorful flowers composed of waxy bracts in many colors on plants growing from one and one-half feet up to fifteen feet tall. These plants are popular for partly shaded areas where they produce exotic, long-lasting flowers that make superior subjects for cutting and floral arrangements. Heliconia grow by underground stems called rhizomes where a single clump of plants will soon spread out and become a larger patch. Keep in mind that some heliconia may grow beyond their original planting site and invade other beds. The true small flowers emerge from the colorful, very visible bracts that are usually red, yellow or orange. Some of the flowers are upright, some hang up-side down. In our area, most of the flowering will occur in the spring and summer.

There are numerous types of heliconia to choose from and most garden centers have several varieties. Heliconia psittacorum (or a hybrid) is commonly available in local garden centers. Specialty nurseries or mail-order Internet sites will also provide a wide range of selections for the hobbyist. On occasion one of the larger heliconia called lobster-claw or Heliconia rostrata is available locally. This heliconia has large leaves and striking hanging red and yellow flower clusters that do in fact resemble the large claws of lobsters. I see many types of heliconia doing well here in Charlotte County. Heliconia are going to do best in a part shade to full sun site in moist well-drained soil. Heliconia are not very tolerant of salt or drought, but they can tolerate wet locations for some time. Heliconia are sensitive to cold and can be damaged during the winter. Don’t be too surprised if during some cold winter weather your heliconia freeze back to the ground. The roots should survive and re-grow as soon as it warms up – mine have done this more than once. Some heliconia adapt well to container culture and, if space is an issue, this is a viable option. Select as large a pot as possible to accommodate future growth and use a sterile potting medium with good drainage for best results. As heliconia grow from rhizomes (underground stems) , they are easily propagated by dividing the clumps every so often. In fact, if your heliconia clumps are beginning to slow down and become unproductive, rejuvenation by digging up and dividing the clumps and enriching the soil with compost and fertilizer is beneficial. The heliconia is a true Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ plant.  Once you see the long-lasting exotic flowers of the heliconia, you will want several for your own landscape – make room for heliconia! For more information on all types of perennial flowering plants suitable for Charlotte County, 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://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/charlotteco/files/2018/03/Plant-Clinics-Schedule.pdf.     Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or ralph.mitchell@charlottecountyfl.gov.

Resources:
Gilman, E. F. & Meerow, A. (2014) Heliconia spp. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Gilman, E. F. & Meerow, A. (2014) Heliconia rostrate, Lobster Claw.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Gilman, E. F. & Meerow, A. (2014) Heliconia caribaea Caribbean Heliconia, Wild Plantain.  The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Gardening Solutions (2018) – Heliconia – The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
The Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design (2010) The University of Florida Extension Services, IFAS.
Schmidt, E. (2017) Heliconias for Central Florida.  Leu Gardens.
heliconia – https://www.thefreedictionary.com/heliconia
Watson, D. P. & Smith, R. R. (2017) Ornamental Heliconias – University of Hawaii – Cooperative Extension Service – Circular 482

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