Heliconia Lobster claw, False bird-of-paradise
Lobster claw, False bird-of-paradise

Variety makes Heliconia perfect for nearly every occasion.
by Steven W. Brown, AIFD

1 SUCH DRAMA. Pronounced “hel-i-KO-nee-a,” these tropical blossoms are grown for their brilliant, unusual flower heads (bracts), which rise from clumps of bananalike leaves. Heliconias’ size and height vary greatly depending on species. Some are as short as 2 feet, and some grow to 25 feet in height. The colorful bracts may be erect, pendulous or spiraling. They take on the shapes of birds’ beaks, lobster claws or fans.

2 CONFUSED FAMILIES. The family Heliconiaceae contains a single genus, with 200 to 250 species. Heliconias once were grouped in the Musaceae (banana) family and the Strelitziaceae (“birds-of-paradise” and relatives) family. Heliconias are native to South America, Central America, Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific islands. Visit www.heliconiasocietypr.org to view nearly all varieties in production.

3 GREEKS HAVE THE NAME. Heliconia refers to Mount Helicon in Greece. Helicon was home to Apollo and the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and goddesses of the arts and sciences. The Muses were said to be eternally young and beautiful. The name Heliconia refers to the long-lasting and attractive qualities of these flowers.

4 THE ENTIRE YEAR. Heliconias are available year-round depending on the variety and growing area. Major Heliconia producing areas are located in Central and South America; Hawaii; tropical Africa; Queensland, Australia and Southeast Asia. In addition, Heliconias are available year-round from Dutch sources.

5 AMAZING COLORS. Most Heliconias have more than one color in the blossoms, and many almost seem to be painted. The colors include reds, pinks, yellows and oranges.

6 BEST SELECTION. Heliconia blossoms need to be harvested and chosen at their peak of maturity because they do not develop after they are cut. Look for blossoms that have high gloss and vivid color, and request colors and forms according to design needs. Don’t purchase Heliconias too far in advance.

7 EASY CARE. Unpack Heliconias immediately upon arrival. Recut the stems, and place them into fresh flower food solution. Do not submerge Heliconias in water as is often done with gingers or Anthuriums. To remove the white powder that sometimes covers the flowers, sponge the areas with a room-temperature solution of soap that contains a few drops of cooking oil, then rinse with fresh water and allow to dry. Plant shine also can be used to achieve this step. It is beneficial to recut Heliconia stems and change the solution every other day.

8 SOME LIKE IT HOT. Heliconias are sensitive to cold temperatures, so never expose these flowers to temperatures below 50 F. If refrigeration is required, adjust storage temperature to 55 F.

9 LONG LASTING. Heliconias’ long vase lives make them a good choice for commercial designs and other arrangements that are expected to last a week or more. Consumers can enjoy Heliconias for up to three weeks, depending on the variety and care and handling procedures that have been followed.

10 HUMMING A SAD TUNE. In many regions where Heliconias grow, hummingbirds feed on and pollinate the blossoms. Bats also are instrumental in pollinating these flowers in the Pacific region. Many species of Heliconias will decline rapidly once they become pollinated. If the flowers begin shedding or discoloring suddenly, this may be the problem.

Steven W. Brown, AIFD, is a professor and department chair of horticulture and floristry at City College of San Francisco with 27 years of consulting and educational experience in the floral industry.