Sunday, May 7, 2017

Plant Story--The Dramatic Heliconias

Heliconias, Bali
Heliconias, Bali
I traveled halfway around the world, to tropical Asia, and the iconic plant I saw everywhere is one I associate with the American tropics, heliconia.

In Bali, the gardens there were glorious with heliconias.

Heliconias, Bali

But heliconias, also called crab's claws and even Japanese canna, are plants in the genus Heliconia, native to the New World tropics. I first met them in Costa Rica, and admired them where they grew in open spots in and along the lowland rainforest.

Heliconia, Costa Rica
Heliconia in forest, Costa Rica
A favorite heliconia memory of mine is that, as a newcomer to the Costa Rican rainforest in 1972, I was both entranced and intimidated by the tropical forest. I was there for an Organization for Tropical Studies tropical ecology course. The orientation warned us of poisonous snakes, parasitic flies, ants whose sting would incapacitate you for 24 hours and other hazards in the forest. Yet it was a course on tropical ecology and daily we carried out projects in the forest. Some days I was in the scary forest by myself, out of sight of my fellow students, taking notes for a group project.

Heliconia, Costa Rica

On this particular day, the intermittent rain that I had tried to ignore started to come down heavily.
I stepped under the protection of big heliconia leaves. They stood some seven feet high and made a fine green roof. I was still standing there, in the bright red short-sleeved shirt I particularly liked (see below),
Costa Rica, 1972 Kathy Keeler
the red shirt
when a hummingbird ducked under that leaf canopy with me. It hovered in front of my face, stationary in the air, wings moving so fast as to be invisible. After a moment, it decided that no, I wasn’t a new flower on the heliconia and zipped away.

Incredibly cool.

Heliconia, Costa Rican Pacific rainforest 1972
Heliconia in the distance under the trees, Costa Rica 1972
In Central America heliconias are often called wild bananas. Bananas are currently in a different, but related, plant family and are from Southeast Asia (blog post on bananas) while the heliconias are native to tropical America, but the similarity of the huge leaves is easy to see. (Bananas are the genus Musa in the Musaceae, heliconias the genus Heliconia in the Heliconiaceae). Like banana leaves, heliconia leaves are widely used in Central America to wrap things.

Today, and probably for the last 300 years, you can encounter heliconias all over the world. In Hawaii and Bali for example. Heliconias are tropical species, requiring abundant rain and dying at temperatures below freezing, but otherwise adaptable and easy to grow.

Heliconia, Costa Rica
Heliconia rostrata, hanging heliconia or crab's claws
Heliconias make great ornamental plants because the long hanging (or standing) "flower” is really an inflorescence, a cluster of modified leaves (bracts) containing the flowers. The actual flowers are small tubes that open sequentially within the big bracts. A hummingbird can easily learn where an inflorescence is, and the plant facilitates that by having the bracts be strikingly colored. So the hummingbird will return day after day to drink nectar from a newly opened flower. In Central America heliconias are pollinated by many species of hummingbirds. Elsewhere in the world they set very little seed because the open flowers are shaped to be easily visited by a few species of hovering birds and difficult for other animals to reach. Hummingbirds are unique among birds in hovering. While other species, from birds to moths, might work out how to reach heliconia nectar and transfer pollen in the process, the fit is great for hummingbirds and not so great for everything else. At home in Central America, that is serves heliconias well, because it reserves the nectar for a pollinator that will fly to a distant plant and cause quality cross-pollination. Elsewhere in the world it can be a liability for seed production.

pink heliconia, Bali

Heliconia seeds are very attractive to birds and germinate best after passing through a bird. Dozens of bird species have been recorded eating heliconia seeds in Central America. For places where seeds are rarely produced, heliconias are easily propagated from a piece of rhizome.

In Central America they are plant of recently disturbed sites, for example forest openings created by treefalls or along streams. Similar conditions can be found in gardens all around the tropics. They grow into dense tall stands of huge leaves and bright flowers. Diverse colors and patterns have been produced by heliconia fanciers. Probably tropical gardeners outside Central America are pleased not to have to weed heliconia seedlings out of their flower beds. 

cultivated heliconia, Costa Rica

Look for them all over the tropics.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Hintz, J. Growing heliconia in Australia link
Lennox, G. W. and S. A. Seddon. 1978. Flowers of the Caribbean. Macmillan Education, Oxford England.
Zuchowski, W. 2007. Tropical plants of Costa Rica. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist


  1. Very interesting. Thank you. I have seen these plants in my friends garden here in Asia and I just love everything about them. From their shape and colour to just their sheer beauty.
    One of the most beautiful plants I've ever seen.
    Thank you again for your article here.❤