Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Heliconias Impart a Tropical Look
Heliconias are beautiful plants to grow to brighten up your garden. With their striking exotic blooms and banana like foliage, they can easily impart a tropical look to an otherwise routine landscape. Unfortunately, these low maintenance, easy to grow plants are seldom seen in local landscapes.
Heliconias, often called wild plantain, consist of over one hundred species of plants native to the tropical regions of Central and South America. Their native growth habit closely resembles that of the banana or canna, which is not surprising considering that Heliconias are a member of the Banana family. They have large leaves and tend to grow in extensive clumps. Be sure to consider the natural growth habit before locating a heliconia in the landscape as plants can range in size from small 2-3 foot patio sized plants to massive giants reaching twenty feet or more.
The smooth, colorfully veined leaves and striking long-lasting inflorescence are some of the main attractions of this species. Ranging from erect strelitzia-type flowers to huge pendulous claw shaped flowers, heliconia blooms can be found in fantastic color combinations in breath taking shades of red, orange, yellow, pink, lavender and green. The combinations are always stunning and even truly bizarre. In one variety of Heliconia caribaea, the inflorescence is composed of red and yellow triangular bracts borne in two ranks cause it to sometimes be referred to as the Lobster Claw heliconia.
The brightly colored bracts, which vary in length from a few inches to several feet, are not the true flowers though. You will see those peeping out from the bracts. Some of the larger blooms can become so heavy that they may require staking to prevent them from breaking down the stalk and falling over.
Heliconia vary in their cultural requirements. Some will perform beautifully in full sun while other thrive best in bright filtered light or even heavy shade. All heliconias prefer moderately rich acidic soil conditions, adequate moisture and protection from strong winds. Given the proper conditions, they grow rapidly and are prone to spread to fill available space. Some varieties, especially the erect flowering forms can be come moderately invasive and are best controlled by planting in well defined beds which they can not escape or by periodically by removing the side shoots to restrict their movement. Smaller cultivars make excellent container specimens to add interest to patios and indoor areas.
For optimum growth and flowering, heliconias should be kept well feed and watered. Regular fertilization three to four times a year with palm fertilizer or a complete all purpose fertilizer fortified with magnesium will yield satisfactory results. Spent blooms should be removed when faded to stimulate new flowers, although flowers usually will endure for several weeks before declining.
Like most tropical plants, heliconias will practically stop growing when the weather becomes cool. Be sure to reduce watering during cool weather to avoid over watering and possibly inducing root rots. When temperatures fall into the 40's, the blooms on some varieties may get cold damaged and sensitive plants will display symptoms of cold damage when temperatures drop into the 30's. Frost will kill heliconias to the ground but they will survive and re-sprout from rhizomes when temperatures moderate.
Heliconias are propagated by division of the rhizomes. This can be done in the early spring while plants are dormant, although most varieties are not fussy about this and can easily be divided at any time.
Heliconias have few problems, they will sometimes develop iron and magnesium deficiencies which is indicated yellowed chlorotic leaves. This can be corrected by supplemental fertilization with magnesium and iron and is most often encountered on alkaline soils.
Occasionally, these spectacular specimens are affected by a mushroom root rot caused by a fungus from the genus Marasmius, which will cause the rhizome to rot. The symptoms of Maramius infection are a brown, dry rot of the rhizomes or the underground stems. Additional evidence of this fungus on rotted plants will be a white threadlike growth or the appearance of small mushrooms. Brown sheath rot can also occur, and the infected plants will fail to grow and thrive as if they were suffering from a nutritional deficiency. The best way to remedy this problem is to completely destroy infected plants and rhizomes. Do not put the infected parts into your compost bin, as this can spread the problem.
Try using these attractive relatives of the banana to add tropical interest to your landscape. Good luck and good gardening.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - email@example.com or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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