The Heliconia genus contains nearly 200 flowering perennial species, native mostly to the tropical Americas (a few are native to South Pacific regions). Of this group, a relatively small handful of species are commonly cultivated for landscaping and as indoor houseplants. Heliconias are common outdoor landscape plants in tropical zones such as Hawaii, southern Florida, and Costa Rica, but selected species and cultivars are often grown as houseplants in other regions.
These plants have large, banana-like leaves around thick, sturdy stems. The flower stems form extremely colorful waxy bracts (modified leaf structures), from which colorful small flowers emerge. The colorful bracts are generally more spectacular than the flowers.
Heliconias are not ideal houseplants—they tend toward being large specimens with enormous leaves, and they are only magnificent during their flowering period, when long strands of red, orange, yellow, or green, bracts are present. However, if you have the right conditions and you're looking for an interesting challenge, a Heliconia is sure to answer that inclination.
If you find Heliconias for sale at local garden centers, your selection may be quite limited, so you may need to order bare rhizomes from an online retailer. If you choose a newer dwarf cultivar, it will make your life easier in the long run.
When planted outside, Heliconia is usually planted in the spring from rhizomes; indoor plants can be started at any time. Smaller varieties will flower about six months after the rhizomes are planted.
|Botanical Name||Heliconia spp.|
|Common Name||Heliconia, lobster claw, false bird-of-paradise|
|Plant Type||Tropical perennial|
|Mature Size||1–15 feet (depends on species)|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade (depends on species)|
|Soil Type||Rich, moist, well-drained soil; houseplants prefer ordinary peat-based potting mix|
|Soil pH||5.0–6.5 (acidic to near neutral)|
|Bloom Time||Spring and summer|
|Flower Color||Red, pink, yellow, orange, or green (varies by species)|
|Hardines Zones||9–11 (USDA); often grown as a houseplant|
|Native Area||Tropical Americas|
When grown indoors, these tropical plants require bright indirect light and temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (never below 50 degrees). In the warmer summer months, bring the plants outdoors to a patio or deck where the flowers are very likely to draw hummingbirds.
Remove spent flowers and bract stems as they fade. As new shoots appear at the soil level, the old flowering stems should be removed. Potted plants will need to be fed regularly, once in the spring, then every few weeks with a diluted water-soluble fertilizer. In winter, watering and feeding can be slightly reduced.
In warmer regions when planted outdoors, Heliconia plants flower in the summer and spring, and then the canes with spent blooms are cut down. You can also cut your plant down to the soil at the beginning of colder weather; it will sprout from the soil again when the warm weather and water returns.
Heliconia plants have no notable pest and disease problems, though indoor plants can be visited by some of the common houseplant nuisances, especially spider mites and mealybugs, both of which can be killed by spraying the plant with horticultural oil.
Heliconia thrives in the same conditions as bananas and bird-of-paradise plants. They can tolerate light conditions from dappled shade to full sunlight; full sun can be especially useful in northerly latitudes. When grown as houseplants, give the brightest indirect light you can.
The short days of northern climates can be a problem for indoor Heliconia plants, and you may find it necessary to add a supplemental light source to provide illumination for at least 8 to 10 hours per day.
A rich, peat-based potting soil with excellent drainage is beneficial for potted plants. A mixture of wood-based compost and peat moss makes an ideal DIY potting soil. Plants grown outdoors in the garden will thrive in a rich, moist, but very well-draining garden soil. These plants can easily develop root rot in soil that is too wet.
All species of Heliconia require ample and continuous water to thrive, but with good drainage. Plants subjected to drought will experience leaf-browning, especially along the leaf margins. To protect your plant during the winter, use tepid water during watering. Make sure the soil dries out almost fully between watering, but then water immediately. Proper watering is the single most important element of growing these plants successfully.
Temperature and Humidity
Heliconia plants are native to tropical forests, so they prefer warm and fairly humid conditions. Temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit and above are ideal. Although the plants often survive a short, mild frost, generally speaking, it's best to protect them against temps below 50 degrees, which can send the plant into a semi-dormant state.
In the dry winters of northern climates, indoor plants will require regular misting to keep the leaves from drying out. Brown tips and margins on leaves are signs the plants need moister air.
Feed with a weak liquid fertilizer every couple of weeks throughout the growing season. Cut fertilizer back to once a month or so in the winter.
Of the more than 200 flowering plants in the genus, these are the ones most commonly grown in cultivation:
- Parrot heliconia (Heliconia psittacorum): Named for the similarity to a parrot's feathers, this species has greenish-yellow flowers with black spots near the tips. This plant generally remains under 3 feet tall, with some cultivars growing to a managable 18 inches or so, making it a common choice for a houseplant.
- Lobster claw/ False Bird of Paradise (H. rostrata): The national flower of Bolivia, this species has flower bracts that are a striking combination of hot pink, yellow, and green. At 4 to 6 feet, this is sometimes grown as a large potted plant, though more often as a garden specimen.
- 'Dwarf Jamaican' heliconia (H. stricta 'Dwarf Jamaican'): H. stricta is a smaller species, at 2 to 10 feet tall. 'Dwarf Jamaican' is one of the most popular cultivars of the species for houseplant use, growing to only about 20 inches in height.
- Pink Flamingo (H. chartacea): This is quite a large plant, grown more often as a garden specimen than as a potted plant. 'Sexy Pink' and 'Sexy Scarlet' are common garden choices.
- Wild plantain (H. caribaea): This is another common outdoor landscape plant in tropical growing zones. It grows as much as 15 feet in height.
Potting and Repotting
Heliconia rhizomes are best potted in the early spring, when the growing season begins. Though fast-growing, these plants don't require frequent repotting. They don't mind being slightly pot-bound, and in fact, might grow better in a slightly tighter pot. Plants will clump over time, so make sure to divide adult plants to increase your collection and keep them manageable.
An ordinary commercial potting soil with a peat base will work well for Heliconia. Or, you can make your own mix from even proportions of peat moss and a wood-based compost. Make sure to use a heavy pot, as these large plants can be prone to tipping, especially if they are moved outdoors during the summer.
Like most plants that grow from rhizomes, Heliconia propagates readily by rhizome division. During repotting time, simply divide the rhizome into pieces and plant each piece separately. It's best if each division has at least two growing nodules, but this isn't strictly necessary.
Successful plants will also produce bright blue-black fruits at the end of the growing season, inside of which are seeds that can be planted. Pick the ripe fruits and allow the flesh to dry away, then clean the seeds and plant them in trays with seed starter mix placed in a bright location but out of direct sunlight. Keep the starter mix moist.
When the seedlings sprout and develop at least two sets of true leaves, they can be transplanted into their own pots and grown on into full-fledged plants to pot up as houseplants. This is a somewhat slow process, so propagating by root division is the more common method.