When you want to add a touch of the tropics to your landscape, patio, deck or sunroom, you can’t go wrong with the Heliconia plant.
There are approximately 190 plus Heliconia species and numerous varieties. These elegant, impressive tropical, flowering plants range in size from a couple of feet high to a towering twenty-five foot tall in the wild.
The plant leaves look similar to some types of banana trees, with flower bracts emerging from the plant like a bunch of bananas.
Flowers range in shape, size and color depending upon the Heliconia variety. Heliconia fanciers often refer to the flower shapes as lobster claw, parrot’s beak or pleated fan.
Because they are tropical, these plants prefer a consistent temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. There are a few hardy varieties that can tolerate somewhat cooler weather, but all varieties like a semi-tropical or tropical setting to thrive outdoors year-round.
The Basics of Good Heliconia Plant Care
These bold, exotic tropical plants make a real statement in any yard, garden or patio setting. Ranging in foliage shades from bright lemon yellow to a deep burgundy, the substantial blossoms are hard to miss. Some flower bracts are stiff and upright (lobster claws) while others hang in pendulous spirals.
The genus is made up of approximately 195 species, and most of them come from South and Central America. [source]
In the South Pacific, you’ll find a half a dozen separately evolved species which all produce green flowers.
The wild plantain is closely related to banana and ginger plants. It is also a cousin of the true Bird of Paradise Strelitzia. [source]
Because these plants grow from rhizomes, they spread quickly in an ideal environment. Like other rhizomatous plants, they may provide some value in areas that need protection from erosion. Because they like to grow in consistently moist soil, they may be good candidates for occupying low-lying areas of the landscape where other plants might be subject to root rot.
In the right setting, a colony of the lobster claw will run rampant and add a dramatic, exotic tropical feel to the landscape. If you don’t have a landscape, you needn’t despair. Many cultivars thrive happily as a container or even potted plants.
These plants are herbaceous (non-woody). Like the banana plant, these plants have a pseudostem, made of leaf petiole sheaths that overlap to support the weight of the flowers and the leaves. [source]
Each of these stems flower just once. When flowering is complete, the pseudostem collapses, dries up and dies. For this reason, it is wisest to cut the pseudostem back entirely when the flowers fade. This helps the plant conserve energy and presents a tidier appearance.
Although some toucan beak plants like full sun, the most natural setting for them is partial shade. In the wild, they are found in forest clearings where they get bright, dappled sunlight. They also like to grow on river banks where they can get good sun and consistent water.
Heliconia Growing Conditions
Like all plants the Heliconia will do best when given the right conditions. Let’s take a look at what they need to make them thrive.
Keep The Soil Light, Airy and Rich
These plants thrive in a well-draining soil and generously amended with decaying organic matter, which provides a natural source of nourishment. A combination of leaf compost, garden loam and a bit of sand makes a planting mix rich in nutrients and resists becoming compacted.
Provide Ample Light for Vigorous Flowering
Although false bird-of-paradise grow in forests in the wild, remember that they choose to be in clearings where they will receive a minimum of six hours of bright light daily. This is necessary for abundant and constant flowering.
When kept in lower light, the plants produce lots of lush leaves but fewer flowers. Lower light also causes plants to gain more height as they reach for the sun.
If you only have a light or partial shade setting for these plants, be sure to seek varieties that prefer this sort of environment. Some good choices included Heliconia stricta ‘Carli’s Sharonii’ and Heliconia pendula.
Provide Ample, Consistent Watering
The wild plantain likes to be watered, and the soil should be kept consistently and uniformly moist. In very hot climates, you may need to water a couple of times daily.
If you find you have a problem with root rot as indicated by curling leaves and/or brown leaves, it is an indication your soil is not light and airy enough. Amend it to create a more freely draining soil mixture.
Keep in mind that this watering routine does not apply to freshly planted rhizomes. Remember that they can be subject to root rot because they do not yet have any foliage and flowers to drink up excess water.
Also, interestingly, some types grow entirely in water. One example is Heliconia densiflora ‘Fireflash’. [source]
Heliconias Love Fertilizer!
Some growers do not fertilize, choosing instead to supply nourishment through different types of organic fertilizers to build a soil rich in organic matter, a large plant with lots of blooms will happily consume a great deal of fertilizer.
If your goal is to grow a monster plant, bone meal wins the Heliconia plant favorite food contest every time. For consistent feeding of average sized plants, best fertilizer for heliconia is a good quality, slow time-release fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 2-1-2 is a good choice. Follow package instructions closely.
Pruning and Maintaining Your Heliconia
Heliconia plants do not require a lot of pruning. They shape themselves, and since the leaves are long fronds, several feet in length, trimming them is not necessary or desirable. When you do remove a leaf, you should remove it entirely.
If your plants have so many leaves that make it difficult to see the flowers, completely remove the obstructing leaves by cutting them all the way back.
When cutting flowers from smaller varieties, cut them off at ground level as this allows more light into the beds and encourages side shoot growth. [source]
Thoroughly remove damaged or dead leaves, and trim away dead flower stems entirely. To do this, chop them back as near to the ground as you can. When the stump has dried up, just remove the remainder with your fingers.
How to Care for Heliconia Indoors
In many areas of the US, the toucan beak is unsuitable for outdoor growing. Luckily, these hardy yet exotic plants adapt quite well when kept as solarium or greenhouse specimens or even as humble houseplants.
With the right soil, fertilizer, watering regimen and general care, false bird-of-paradise grow fairly rapidly. If you start your plant from a rhizome, you can expect larger species to attain full height and begin flowering within a year or two.
Smaller, psittacorum varieties are even quicker. You can expect maturity and blossoms in under a year. [source]
Both large and small varieties can grow indoors in pots; however, smaller varieties are naturally better suited for this purpose. If you do choose to keep a larger, taller plant common sense will dictate use of a large and heavy pot to prevent toppling.
Remember, these plants need plenty of light and warmth to flower well, so a heated greenhouse or sunroom is ideal. If you cannot provide this sort of specialized setting, choose a southern or western window that gets good sun and stays warm.
If you do not have a window that gets at least six hours of sun a day, supplement with a fluorescent grow light.
Be careful not to place your plant too close to the window as it might take a chill. These plants prefer a steady temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They should never be subject to temperatures lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Water carefully and watch out for signs of waterlogging and root rot, though this is unlikely if you have the right soil mixture and a pot with good drainage. Daily watering is probably not necessary. Indoors, you should allow the soil to become somewhat dry before watering again.
Fertilize very lightly, if at all, indoors. Most growers find that a potting medium rich in organic compost provides plenty of nourishment for indoor growth.
Keep humidity levels high by setting pots on a tray of pebbles and water. The container should sit on top of the pebbles and not come in contact with the water. As the water evaporates, it provides the plants with ambient humidity. Remember to check the water daily and refresh it as needed. A humidifier is also a good option.
Many growers have found that plants kept in medium sized pots (12-14 inches in diameter) seem to do better indoors than those kept in very large pots. Larger pots encourage more leaf and root growth and fewer blossoms. Additionally, medium-sized pots seem to keep the size of the plant under control.
When you have kept your Heli indoors all winter, be careful when moving it outdoors in the springtime. Moving it out too early could damage it and/or prevent blooming.
Wait until the first buds appear and then harden the plant off carefully with short visits outdoors after all danger of frost passes. Gradually move it to its new summer location.
When keeping your Heli indoors, spider mites in the house may be a problem. To prevent them, wipe the leaves down with a mild solution of neem insecticide oil and water from time to time. Examine your plant frequently and remove any leaves that have become infested with spider mites.
How to Care for Heliconia Outdoors
In tropical and semi-tropical areas these plants can thrive outdoors all year round. In some areas that experience moderately cold winter (down to USDA 8b), anecdotal evidence suggests that the hardiest varieties (e.g., Heliconia schiedeana) may die back during the coldest months but grow back from the roots when warm weather returns. [source]
To encourage this, it’s a good idea to mulch thoroughly around the plant late in the fall. This will help protect the roots from chill.
When planting “toucan beak” outside, be sure to select a bright setting. Many growers prefer an eastern exposure, which provides only morning sun is best.
Provide well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Keep the soil evenly moist and water once or twice a day as needed. Feed frequently using a granular slow-release fertilizer. Once a month, boost this with a feeding of a water-soluble fertilizer.
Remember these plants are used to growing in a naturally protected forest environment. Be sure to protect them from high winds by planting near a wall or fence. Excessive wind can snap off flower bracts, and flay leaves.
Heliconia Pests and Disease
Healthy wild heliconia planted outdoors have little or no trouble with pests. [source]
Some growers note that ants like to travel about on the plants and enjoy the nectar of the flowers, but they don’t seem to do any harm. Birds may damage the plants a bit, but sharing with them won’t cause too much harm.
Rats and mice may eat various parts of the plant. If this happens, you will naturally need to deal with them by calling in a pest control specialist, setting traps and/or making careful and responsible use of poisons. Take care not to harm beneficial wildlife!
Excessively watered plants and/or ones not planted in a sheltered location with proper growing medium may have problems resulting from soil pathogens and/or fungal diseases; however, if you care for your plants correctly they should not be plagued by these problems.
Propagate by Rhizome or Seed
It is rare to propagate these plants by seed as doing so is a lengthy and inconsistent process. [source]
Most nurseries and online vendors of Heliconia rhizomes for sale offer segments, which are easy to plant and grow. Just follow these steps:
- Dip the segments into a mild fungicidal solution.
- Plant in a free-draining soil mixture with the tip (bud or eye) of the rhizome just barely exposed.
- Firm the soil lightly around the rhizome and add more if needed.
Some growers feel that they get better results by starting rhizomes in a soil-free medium such as sterilized potting compost, vermiculite and/or perlite.
If you are planting a freshly harvested rhizome, allow it to dry for a couple of days before planting. This will help prevent germs and/or fungus entering through any wounds where the segment was separated from the parent plant. You may wish to seal it with a bit of pruning sealer if you have some on hand.
Use Seed Planting for Rare Varieties
In most cases, you will want to go with rhizome planting, but if you have your heart set on a rare variety that is only available by seed, you’ll surely want to give it a go. Just keep in mind that the germination period of these seeds is very long, ranging from a single month to an entire year. Germination rates are sketchy.
Follow these steps to plant Heliconia seeds:
- Scarify the seed using sandpaper or soak it for two or three days to soften its thick hull.
- Sow in damp, well-draining compost and keep at a temperature of approximately 86 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 65-72 degrees Fahrenheit overnight.
- Be sure to provide ample sunlight and/or a grow light.
With any luck, you should have small plants that can be kept as potted plants within 2-3 months. You’ll want to protect them very carefully from chill and wind for the first season outdoors even in the summer months.
Select the Right Heliconia For Your Setting
The first step toward success with Heliconia is careful selection. Making the right choice for your space will help ensure your plant fits in gracefully and does not overpower your home, patio, sunroom or yard with its size.
Remember some of the larger species can attain heights of fifteen feet or more, so these might make a good houseplant for one season, but after that, you will need to think of something to do with them!
Dwarf varieties (e.g., dwarf Heliconia psittacorum or Heliconia stricta) stay smallish, topping out at about a foot and a half high. These plants can make wonderful, houseplants for many years.
In addition to height, keep bloom time in mind. All false bird-of-paradise are long blooming, but some varieties (Heliconia psittacorum) bloom year-round, making them even more desirable as houseplants.
Before you purchase any lobster-claw do some research on the various species. Have a few in mind before you begin shopping.
The Most Popular Heliconia Varieties:
Commonly known as Parakeet Flower, Parrot’s Beak, parrot’s flower, parrot’s plant, parrot’s tongue, popokaytongo.
It’s no wonder that the Parakeet Flower is the most popular type of Heliconia. There is a great deal of choice to be had within this easy-to-grow variety, and it is also easier to grow than most other types.
The plant is relatively compact, ranging from one to six feet high. The blossom clusters are relatively small at only seven inches in length.
Bract colors vary, and you may find orange, red, cream colored and multi-colored bracts on the same plant.
Tubular shaped, true blossoms come in shades of red, orange and yellow with white or dark green tips. It is this tip which gives the bloom its “parrot tongue” appearance. The attractive, unusual flowers make excellent additions to cut flower arrangements.
The plant blooms abundantly throughout the year, so it is an excellent choice as a houseplant. When blooming is complete, the plant produces a drupe of reddish-orange fruit.
Heliconia psittacorum looks quite a bit like its cousin, the Bird of Paradise. It has reed-like stems and long, pointy banana-like, red-edged leaves with a coppery sheen. The attractive leaves have prominent midribs in shades of pink and ivory.
Because of its adaptability and variations in sizes and colors, Psittacorum is a great choice for almost any application. It does just as well as a potted plant, bedding plant, landscape feature or container plant for your deck, patio or poolside.
Common name: Red Holiday or Red Christmas – is a lovely poinsettia alternative. During the holiday season, you can count on festive color as this plant produces pinkish-red bracts with green and white sepals.
This variety is quite small and usually stay at about two feet high. Under ideal conditions, it can grow to four feet high. This is a shade loving variety, so it is a great choice as a houseplant or as a container plant on a shaded deck or patio.
AKA Peterson is a larger specimen attaining heights ranging from four feet to eighteen feet. These showy plants produce dramatic bracts of flowers in red, crimson and pink with a black distal lip.
The shoots and main stalk are also quite dramatic in a deep shade of purple. These plants require full sun and are an excellent choice for a large, outdoor garden in a tropical setting.
Known as the “Yellow Dancer” plants attains heights between five and fourteen feet. Its leaves vary in length from two feet to six feet. Lobster claw-shaped bracts in shades of yellow or reddish orange produce pale greenish-white flowers and are similarly immense. This is a good choice as an outdoor plant.
Called “Purpurea” by some the plant ranges in height from seven to twenty feet. Its leaves are similar to those of banana plants and can reach five feet long. Lower leaves and stems at the base of the plant exhibit a white, waxy coating.
The plant produces immense, erect bracts in red and/or yellow and blossom clusters in white with greenish tips. Bloom time is February through November. These plants prefer full sun, but they can tolerate as much as sixty percent shade.
Commonly known as the “Hanging Lobster Claw” is very popular because of its colorful, unusual inflorescences. This plant produces large, pendulous, bright red blooms in dazzlingly yellow bracts that can reach lengths of three feet.
When the plant is grown in the ground, in an ideal setting, it may grow as tall as fifteen feet. When kept in a container, it usually grows to between four and five feet high. When it reaches this height, it begins blooming.
It’s Hard to Avoid Becoming a Heliconia Collector!
It is easy to see why so many gardening enthusiasts consider Heliconia a must-have house plant and/or addition to the tropical garden.
For most gardeners, Heliconia psittacorum provides ample variety to suit any use from potted houseplant to individual landscape specimen.
If you long for even more exotic variety in your tropical garden, explore a few of the other suggestions we have made here. For a chart of Heliconia Latin and common names, accompanied by clear images, visit the Heliconia Society of Puerto Rico