These tropical blossoms are grown for their brilliant and unusual flower heads called bracts, which rise from clumps of banana-like leaves. The size and height of heliconias vary greatly depending on the species. Some are as short as 2 feet, while others grow to 25 feet in height! The colorful bracts may be erect, pendulous or spiraling, even taking on the shapes of birds’ beaks, lobster claws or fans.
Heliconia refers to Mount Helicon in Greece. Helicon was home to Apollo and the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus. The Muses, goddesses of the arts and sciences, were said to be eternally young and beautiful. Therefore, the name Heliconia refers to the long-lasting and attractive qualities of these flowers.
Heliconias once were grouped in the Musaceae (banana) family and the Strelitziaceae (“birds-of-paradise”) family. But now Heliconias have a family to call their own: the Heliconiaceae, which contains a single genus, with 200 to 250 species.
Heliconias are native to the tropics: South America, Central America, Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific islands. However, they 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 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.
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 because heliconias are available in a variety of colours, it is possible to request specific colors and forms for your design needs. 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.
Heliconias do last a long time, if given the proper care. To keep these tropical beauties looking their best, be sure to re-cut the stems and place them into a fresh flower food solution once you bring them home from your florist. It is recommended to re-cut Heliconia stems and change the solution every other day. And like other tropical plants, do not submerge Heliconias in water.
Heliconias’ long vase lives make them a good choice for commercial designs and other arrangements that are expected to last a week or more. You can expect to enjoy cut Heliconias for up to three weeks, depending on the variety and care and handling procedures that have been followed.
If you see a white residue on the flowers, use a sponge to clean it off with a solution of warm soapy water and a few drops of cooking oil. Rinse off with fresh water and allow to dry. It’s likely that your florist has already done this step.
And one last note: Heliconias are sensitive to cold temperatures, so never expose these flowers to temperatures below 50 F.