Plant of the Week
Latin: Heliconia wagneriana
House painters in the tropics seem to prefer bright and bold colors, shunning the conservative shades preferred by us gringos. Inspiration for such bold color choices is close at hand for the flora and fauna of the region tends to favor vivid coloration.
One of the most bizarre and beautiful plants of the New World tropics is Heliconia.
Costa Rica has over 35 native species of Heliconia with H. wagneriana one of the most commonly grown. It’s used as a tall shrub in the tropical landscape and is also grown as a field crop to produce cut flowers for export. Heliconias belong to their own plant family but are most closely related to bird of paradise and banana.
Heliconia wagneriana has the typical growth form of most Heliconias. It has no above ground stem, instead relying on underground rhizomes to expand the size of the colony. Four to six leaves emerge from the ends of each rhizome and grow from 8 to 12 feet tall. The leaf blade is oblong in outline and five feet long with wavy margins. Each leaf, with its long petiole, looks like a long slender oar waving in the breeze.
During the rainy season, a 5-foot tall flower stem emerges from these clustered leaves. Heliconias have two types of inflorescences - those that droop downward and those that stand erect. H. wagneriana stands erect with the inflorescence consisting of 8 to 15 overlapping bracts.
The bracts - actually specially modified leaves - are shaped like an inverted bird’s beak and are 3 to 4 inches long. Each has a green outline surrounding a broad band of yellow which surrounds a central patch of bright red or orange. The true flowers, each of which remains open only one day, are small and insignificant in appearance and borne inside the boat-like bract.
The architecture of the inflorescence - drooping or erect – depends on the type of hummingbird that does the pollination for the species. In this species, with its short, stubby flowers, the pollinator of choice is the hermit hummingbird with a curved beak. Each bract is filled with water, forming a moat around the ovary that protects the seeds as they develop. Even if rain doesn’t fall, the plant will pump water into the bract to maintain the water level at the appropriate depth.
Heliconias are seldom offered as plants in garden centers but are common as cut flowers when designers want a brash and bold look. The inflorescence is usually 18 to 24 inches long, so heliconia flower arrangements are most often used in hotel lobbies and other large spaces. Because the showy portion of the inflorescence is a bract, heliconia stems remain effective as cut flowers for two to three weeks.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - March 10, 2006
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.