Introduction to Heliconias

written and compiled by Lee Spindler

Heliconias are tropical plants related to bananas, cannas and gingers. There are about 100 different individual species, and most species then have a large number of hybrids and cultivars, with flower styles varying significantly from the original.

The actual heliconia flower is fairly insignificant. What most people would call the 'flower' is actually a group of colourful specialised leaves, called bracts. The true flowers are hidden inside these bracts. 

Heliconia leaves look more or less like banana leaves. They are generally green, but some are tinged slightly with colour (particularly when young) and sometimes the leaves and stems are coloured or patterned slightly.  Some foliage is wildly coloured, however, particularly in Heliconia indica cultivars.

Heliconias grow from an underground system of rhizomes. Rhizomes are a type of root (the ginger that you buy in the supermarket is a piece of rhizome from the common edible ginger plant). There are pictures of heliconia rhizomes below, under 'Rhizomes'.

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Where and how to grow heliconias

Most heliconia species do not tolerate cold weather and will suffer injury when temperatures fall below 13C. The general climatic conditions required for healthy growth are warm and humid.

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 requirement is selection of the right cultivars.  

Zones 10-12 are excellent for heliconias. Zone 9 is fine for all except the ultra tropical species. Zone 8 will support cold tolerant heliconias if they are looked after and provided the right microclimate. See the Zone Hardiness Map page to check your Zone.

Most varieties of heliconias will grow well in full sun, where others require partial shade. They tend to grow taller if grown in shadier areas.

Heliconias prefer freely draining soils with high organic matter. They are heavy feeders and they need lots of water. They are best grown on slopes or raised beds for good drainage and they need plenty of space.

Heavy mulching is recommended to protect the soil from drying out, and to enhance the soil's organic matter. Additional irrigation is important for low rainfall areas.

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

You should not prune your heliconias, as the 'stem' is actually made up of rolled leaf bases and the flowers emerge from the top of these 'pseudostems'. However, each stem will only flower once, so after flowering you can cut that stem out. This is recommended, to encourage more flowering, to increase airflow in between the stems of your plant, and also to generally tidy it up and improve the appearance.

Growing Styles

Different flower styles
 - flowering styles are roughly classed in 2 groups - 'erect' or 'pendant' (hanging flowers). Some people like to separate the psittacorums into a 3rd group, as psittacorums flower on the end of stalks, rather than from the middle as do the 'erect' or 'pendant' types.

      Erect type                                       Pendant type                                  Psittacorum type


Left to right: Claw III, Flash, Heliconia rostrata, Extra Sexy, Pink Blush, Scarlet Torch

Height - Depending on the species, heliconias can vary in height from as small as 60 cm to 6 metres. They do need a fair bit of room to grow.

Growing styles - 'clumping' vs 'spreading' - Heliconias have 2 basic growing styles, 'clumping' or 'spreading'.

A heliconia species is 'clumping' when the new shoot breaks the ground very close to (almost touching) the mother plant. Clumping species are not invasive and will generally keep to themselves.


Clumpting heliconias - from left to right: Jacquinii, Collinsiana, Rauliniana and Wagneriana

A species is 'spreading' when the new shoot breaks the ground far, 8 inches or more away from the mother plant. 'Spreaders are good for large expansive areas, but can become invasive if not controlled, moving into other garden areas where you may not want them. You can control their spread by growing them in large pots, or by installing a root barrier into the soil. Alternatively, plant them in an area where you can easily remove unwanted new shoots - for example, where you can mow over unwanted growth.


Spreading heliconias - from left: Nickeriensis, Lady Di, Bucky and Firebird

Growing speed-heliconias are fairly quick growers if given plenty of good rich soil and fertilizer. Most of the larger species will take 12-24 months to flower when grown from a rhizome. The smaller psittacorum types will usually flower within 6-12 months when grown from rhizomes.

Growing in pots - most heliconias can be grown in pots, although the pot will need to be fairly large, even for the smaller psittacorum species. For the taller growing species, the pot will need to be heavy and stable so that the weight of the tall and heavy stems does not tip the pot over.


Heliconias may be propagated by division of rhizomes or from seeds, although dividing rhizomes is by far the most common method. Heliconias are seldom grown from seeds. Not all species set seed, seeds may take up to a year to germinate, and germination percentages may be poor. The seedlings that do come may not be the same as the parent plant.

Dividing rhizomes guarantees an identical plant to the parent. Propagating heliconias by division involves making a cut across a section of rhizome (ideally bearing at least one visible sucker). The cut section of rhizome can then be transplanted to a new location. The planted rhizomes usually sprout within two months.

The size and weight of Heliconia rhizomes varies depending on the species or variety. Smaller species, such as psittacorum rhizomes, may weigh only 50 to 70g. Rhizomes of large Heliconias like caribaea varieties may weigh 300g to 700g and more.

Some typical heliconia rhizomes (click on thumbnail for a larger picture).

Note the size difference between the Heliconia caribaea at the top left, and the Heliconia psittacorum at the bottom right.

Planting instructions

Rhizomes should be planted as soon as possible after you receive them. It is usually best to plant them in a pot, then after they are established, plant them in their final position in the garden.

The rhizome should have growing 'buds' or new shoots, as well as the base of the leaf stem. 

The rhizome should be planted with the top (leaf stem/new shoots/buds pointing upwards) no more than 3-4 cm under the soil. New shoots or larger buds should be above the soil. You can often look at the rhizome and see where the soil line had been while it was growing. 

It is very important not to plant the rhizome too deep, as this will invite fungi and cause root rot. Freshly planted rhizomes need oxygen to grow new roots and will die if the planting medium is too dense or too wet.

After planting, water thoroughly, then do not water again until soil is getting dry. Keep evenly moist, but not wet, when shoots to grow and leaves start to unfold.

It is best not to disturb the rhizomes while they are growing, as the roots and new shoots that develop at the base of the rhizome are fragile. It is normal for the old stem to wither and die, and a new shoot will emerge from the base of the rhizome. Some rhizomes will shoot within days, others can take several months. Do not give up if nothing appears to be happening - it can take time.

If planted in pots, these should be of sufficient size - at least 10 to 15 cm wider than rhizome size. Keep the pots in a warm, sunny place. When leaves start to unfold the plants can be planted out - again in well drained soil.

A slow release fertilizer is ideal in the beginning. Larger and already established plants require more fertilizing and more water.

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Rhizomes which have just been planted                       Rhizomes which are just shooting                 This plant is ready to be planted in the garden

Popular species

Heliconia psittacorum (Parrots beak)

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


Left to right: Andromeda, Crackerjack, Exotic, Fantasia 


Left to right: Flamenco, Jade, Lady Di, Lucidia 


Left to right: Pearl, Petra, Pink Blush, Red Devil 


Left to right: Rose Red, Rosie, Sassy, Winter Pink 

Heliconia psittacorum crosses

Slightly larger plants than ordinary psittacorums, but much the same otherwise in respect of climate requirements and growth habits.

Left to right: Golden Torch, Golden Torch Adrian, Scarlet Torch, Halloween and Nickeriensis

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 (Lobster claws)

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.


Left to right: Claw I, Claw II, Claw III, Emerald Forest, Giant Lobster Claw


Left to right: Kawauchi, Moana Sunrise, Nappi, Nappi Yellow/Nappi Twist, Yellow Dancer/Island Yellow

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.  Whilst the flowers on most strictas are red, or insignificant, some are grown for their foliage alone. 


Left to right: Bucky, Firebird, Jamaican Dwarf, Royal Tagami

Heliconia caribaea (Giant heliconia) and caribaea/bihai crosses

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' and 'Flash'


Left to right: Barbados Flat, Flash, Jacquinii, Hot Rio Night, Richmond Red

Heliconia chartacea 'The Sexys'

Considered some of the most striking heliconias, these plants prefer the humid tropical districts. Gorgeous colours are suspended from incredibly long pendant stalks. 'Sexy Pink' can be a finicky grower, even in the tropics, but the others are much easier to grow.


Left to right: Sexy Pink, Sexy Scarlet, Sexy Orange, Extra Sexy/Temptress

Heliconia indica - foliage types

Heliconia indica has fairly insignificant flowers, but often has spectacular foliage.


Left to right: H. indica albo variegata 'Bangkok', H. indica 'Metallica', H. indica 'Spectabilis'

Other species

There are plenty of other species, around 100 in all.  Not all are spectacular - although really, most are!  Here are a few others...


Left to right: H. champneiana 'Splash' and 'Maya Gold', H. latispatha 'Orange Gyro' and 'Red Gyro', H. pseudoaemygdiana 'Birdiana'


Left to right: H. collinsiana, H. wagneriana 'Rainbow' and 'Green', H. marginata x bihai 'Rauliniana'


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