Heliconias are fast, vigorous growers in outdoor landscapes in tropical zones like Hawaii, southern Florida, and Costa Rica. They 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 leaves, from which colorful upright or pendulous flower groups emerge, closely resembling birds of paradise plants. Heliconias are not ideal houseplants—they tend toward being large specimens with enormous leaves—and are only magnificent during their flowering period. But, if you're looking for an interesting challenge and can duplicate their ideal conditions, Heliconia will rise to the occasion.
|Common Name||Heliconia, lobster claw, false bird-of-paradise|
|Botanical Name||Heliconia spp.|
|Plant Type||Tropical perennial|
Can You Grow Heliconia Inside?
Only a handful of Heliconia species are cultivated for care indoors since this plant is very particular about its growing conditions, requiring bright indirect light for at least 8 to 10 hours and temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (never below 50 degrees). You'll need a supplemental grow light to meet its lighting needs. Also, many Heliconia species tend to get very large, some reaching up to 15 feet tall. For smaller homes, you may consider a dwarf cultivar or a smaller variety like a parrot heliconia (Heliconia psittacorum), which can stay between 18 inches and 3 feet.
How to Grow Heliconia Indoors
When grown as houseplants, give the brightest indirect light you can. Heliconias need plenty of light and warmth to make flowers; a heated greenhouse or sunroom is the best option. Otherwise, choose a southern or western window and rotate it periodically so the entire plant gets the light.
You will need to supplement with artificial fluorescent grow lights if the plant does not get up to eight hours of sunlight, especially if you experience shorter days during the winter season.
Temperature and Humidity
Heliconia plants are native to tropical forests, so they prefer warm and relatively humid conditions. Temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit and above are ideal. 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. Also, moisten a towel and clean off any accumulated dust on the plant's leaves at least once a week.
All species of Heliconia require ample and continuous water to thrive but with good drainage. Proper watering is the most critical element of growing these plants successfully. 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. Ensure the soil dries out almost entirely between watering and then water immediately.
Since this water lover is prone to fungus growth, it's essential to make sure this plant has air movement around the plant to prevent soggy conditions. Use stakes to keep foliage from flopping on the ground or covering the pot. Also, separate plants bunched together since it can trap moisture. This plant may benefit from a ceiling fan or oscillating fan to ventilate the plant.
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. For flowering, you want a fertilizer with a higher phosphorus content. A bone meal supplement is suitable for adding phosphorus. It can also strengthen root systems.
Pruning and Maintenance
Remove spent flowers and stems as they fade. As new shoots appear at the soil level, you should remove the old flowering stems.
Hummingbirds exclusively pollinate Heliconias. In the absence of the birds, these plants can be hand pollinated but it's not an easy process. Since the plants prefer the touch of long-beaked hummingbird species, hand-pollination needs to mimic that touch by using a long pipette to collect and distribute the pollen.
Container and Size
Medium-sized pots (12 to 14 inches in diameter) are ample for Heliconias. Any larger, and the plant will focus more on filling the pot, growing upward, and making more foliage. However, it can hinder blooming if you get a variety that grows tall. You will need a larger, heavier pot to prevent the pot from toppling over from a tall or top-heavy plant.
Potting Soil and Drainage
A rich, peat-based potting soil with excellent drainage is beneficial for potted plants. These plants can quickly develop root rot in soil that is too wet. An even mixture of wood-based compost and peat moss makes an ideal potting soil.
Potting and Repotting Heliconia
When the growing season begins, Heliconia rhizomes are best potted in the early spring. Though fast-growing, these plants don't require frequent repotting. They don't mind being slightly pot-bound and might grow better in a tighter pot. Plants will clump over time, so divide adult plants to increase your collection and keep them manageable. The easiest way to propagate these plants is by rhizome division. The rhizome is a tuberous root that can be cut and replanted to produce more plants. During repotting time, divide the rhizome (with at least two growing nodules) into pieces and plant each part separately. Smaller varieties will flower about six months after the rhizomes are planted.
Moving Heliconia Outdoors for the Summer
Bring the plants outdoors to a patio or deck where the flowers are likely to draw hummingbirds in the warmer summer months. Heliconia has a highly valued nectar, and hummingbirds help pollinate your plant. They like sun, but not too much direct sun. They prefer dappled light. Having the plant in a pot will allow you to move the plant until you find a spot with perfect lighting.
As with all plants, when bringing a plant to live outside, harden or slowly acclimate the plant to its outside home. Hardening is a less stressful way to help a plant transition from a protected indoor to a less predictable outdoor environment with fluctuating spring temperatures, wind, and brighter sun exposure. Start with two-hour increments for a couple of days, then gradually add a few more hours every few days.
Ensure that outdoor temperatures remain above 50 F. Heliconia can likely survive a light frost for a few hours, but you risk killing the plant afterward. It can endure in hot 90 F-plus temperatures, but it needs daily water, at least morning and night, and dappled shade protection to thrive.
Keep the plant in a partial shade spot for at least eight hours. Make sure it is not too shady since the plant will grow taller in an attempt "to find the sun." Also, keep the plant out of direct light to prevent burning its delicate leaves, which can ultimately reduce its growth and overall vitality.
Heliconia loves water and rain but not wet feet, so make sure it's planted in well-draining soil and a pot with several drainage holes. Never let the soil get soggy and never allow it to dry out thoroughly. It also thrives in a humid environment. So, if you have drier weather conditions, mist the plant every day or set up a drip watering system for the plant.
When to Bring Heliconia Back Inside
If you're ready to bring your plant inside when temperatures are starting to drop below 50 F, plan for reacclimating your plant or hardening off. Like when you took the plant outdoors, the same technique of slowly introducing its new environment will alleviate plant stress. Also, plan on adding humidity by hand misting or adding a humidifier since most indoor environments are drier, especially during the winter. Carefully inspect your plant for insects before introducing the plant to your indoor environment. Deal with any insect problem before bringing it inside.
Special note: Harden your plants if you get the chance; however, if you know temperatures will plummet precipitously and do not have the time to harden, bring them in to prevent plant death.
Can you trigger Heliconia to bloom?
A Heliconia will not bloom in its first growing season. It takes at least two years to mature to the flowering stage. For flowering, introduce bone meal fertilizer once in the spring. Also, fertilize at least twice during the growing season. Withhold fertilizer or weaken it during the winter months.
Are Heliconia fruits edible?
Heliconias develop blue-black fruits at the end of the growing season. These fruits are not edible by humans, but birds eat them and spread the internal seeds. Pick the ripe fruits, allow the flesh to dry away, clean the seeds, and plant them.
Is it easy to propagate Heliconia?
It is easiest to propagate Heliconia by splitting its rhizome or root structure. It can take less time to achieve flowering and get larger quicker. When growing from seed, scarify the seeds to speed up the germination process. Plant them in trays with seed starter mix in a bright location but out of direct sunlight. Keep the starter mix moist.