Introduction to Heliconias
Heliconias are tropical plants related to bananas, cannas and gingers. There are about 100 different individual species, and most species then have a large number of hybrids and cultivars, with flower styles varying significantly from the original.
The actual heliconia flower is fairly insignificant. What most people would call the 'flower' is actually a group of colourful specialised leaves, called bracts. The true flowers are hidden inside these bracts.
Heliconia leaves look more or less like banana leaves. They are generally green, but some are tinged slightly with colour (particularly when young) and sometimes the leaves and stems are coloured or patterned slightly. Some foliage is wildly coloured, however, particularly in Heliconia indica cultivars.
Heliconias grow from an underground system of rhizomes. Rhizomes are a type of root (the ginger that you buy in the supermarket is a piece of rhizome from the common edible ginger plant). There are pictures of heliconia rhizomes below, under 'Rhizomes'.
Where and how to grow heliconias
Most heliconia species do not tolerate cold weather and will suffer injury when temperatures fall below 13C. The general climatic conditions required for healthy growth are warm and humid.
All of the eastern coast of Queensland, northern stretches of New South Wales, and most areas of humid Northern Territory and Western Australia are perfect for heliconia growing - the only requirement is selection of the right cultivars.
Zones 10-12 are excellent for heliconias. Zone 9 is fine for all except the ultra tropical species. Zone 8 will support cold tolerant heliconias if they are looked after and provided the right microclimate. See the Zone Hardiness Map page to check your Zone.
Most varieties of heliconias will grow well in full sun, where others require partial shade. They tend to grow taller if grown in shadier areas.
Heliconias prefer freely draining soils with high organic matter. They are heavy feeders and they need lots of water. They are best grown on slopes or raised beds for good drainage and they need plenty of space.
Heavy mulching is recommended to protect the soil from drying out, and to enhance the soil's organic matter. Additional irrigation is important for low rainfall areas.
Fertilisers used by home gardeners are generally chicken pellets, although complete fertilizer blends are ideal. The only significant pests for gardeners are grasshoppers, scale and mealybugs. Diseases are rare but wet feet, especially in winter, can rot the root system.
You should not prune your heliconias, as the 'stem' is actually made up of rolled leaf bases and the flowers emerge from the top of these 'pseudostems'. However, each stem will only flower once, so after flowering you can cut that stem out. This is recommended, to encourage more flowering, to increase airflow in between the stems of your plant, and also to generally tidy it up and improve the appearance.
Heliconias may be propagated by division of rhizomes or from seeds, although dividing rhizomes is by far the most common method. Heliconias are seldom grown from seeds. Not all species set seed, seeds may take up to a year to germinate, and germination percentages may be poor. The seedlings that do come may not be the same as the parent plant.
Dividing rhizomes guarantees an identical plant to the parent. Propagating heliconias by division involves making a cut across a section of rhizome (ideally bearing at least one visible sucker). The cut section of rhizome can then be transplanted to a new location. The planted rhizomes usually sprout within two months.
The size and weight of Heliconia rhizomes varies depending on the species or variety. Smaller species, such as psittacorum rhizomes, may weigh only 50 to 70g. Rhizomes of large Heliconias like caribaea varieties may weigh 300g to 700g and more.