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Heliconias – Lobsters and Parrots of the tropics


The envy of all cool climate gardeners is the ability of warm climate gardeners to grow stunning tropical plants.


The crown jewel adored by florists and gardeners would have to be Heliconias.


Flower heads, correctly termed as bracts, range in colours from soft pink to vibrant yellows and reds. These may be produced in a pendulant habit or erect. The true flower is either tucked out of sight within the bract, or protrudes out as a feature.


Heliconias come in a range of height and growth habits. Some may only reach 50cm while others may reach 6m in tropical climates.


All heliconias produce an underground rhizome system. Some are very rampant capable of covering significant ground area within a few years, others may be more dense clumping. Rampant growers (runners) are good for large expansive areas. The spread can be controlled by first installing a root barrier into the soil, then planting the heliconia. Every 3 years or so, the entire clump is dug up and a young division (sucker) is replaced in the hole.


Their requirements are simple: fertile well drained soil, warm humid temperatures and adequate water. Note - they do not like frosts.


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 requirements is selection of the right cultivars.


In areas where rainfall in low, additional irrigation is important.


Fertilisers used by home gardeners are generally chicken pellets, although complete fertilizer blends are ideal.


Heavy mulching is recommended to protect the soil from drying out, and to enhance the soil organic matter.


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.


Heliconias are adapted to full or part sun. Height will tend to increase if the plant is subjected to shade.


Points to note about heliconias:

·         the ‘stem’ is actually made up of rolled leaf bases and the flowers emerge from the top of these pseudostems. Pruning therefor is not advised.

·         each pseudostem will only flower once, so after flowering it is best to cut that pseudostem out.


Popular Heliconias


Heliconia psittacorum (Parrots beak)

Capable of flowering year round near Cairns, but seasonal in Brisbane. Habit tends to be a runner. Ranges in height from 1m to 3m. Erect flowers are borne usually above the foliage. Excellent garden and tub plants.


Heliconia rostrata (Hanging lobster claw)

Eye catching pendulant bracts of striking red with yellow and green tips. Fairly dense habit when less than 3 years old, but can spread fast in the tropics although easily controlled in Brisbane. Leaf stalks may reach up to 4m in shade but only 2m in full sun. Tends to flower mainly in summer – perfect for Christmas floral decorations. Flowers are produced on pseudostems which developed the previous year.


Heliconia bihai (Large lobster claw)

These are extremely variable in flower colour. Capable of producing 50cm erect flower heads. Peak season is summer, with sporadic flowers throughout the year in tropical zones. These have a tight compact growth habit.


Heliconia stricta (Small lobster claw)

Characteristic flat bracts of this heliconia makes them good for floral arrangements.

H. stricta ‘Dwarf Jamaican’ – less than 1m tall and flowers best in winter with red-rose bracts and attractive foliage. Good as a ground cover substitute in the tropics. Not rampant in Brisbane.


Heliconia caribaea (Giant heliconia)

Massive plants to 6m tall resembling bananas in dense clumps. Erect floral displays up to 50cm long. Adapted to the tropics and subtropics, they are capable of flowering in autumn, winter and spring. Cultivars are available in red, yellow, gold, scarlet, maroon or multi-coloured. Eg.’Jacquinii’


Heliconia chartacea ‘Sexy Pink’

Considered one of the most striking heliconias, this plant prefers the humid tropical districts. Exotic pink and apple green bracts are borne of a rose red pendulant stalk.

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