Few plants combine the colorful and bizarre as well as these natives of tropical Central and South America and the southwest Pacific. Members of this large group feature big clusters of showy bracts containing small, true flowers. In some, the clusters look like lobster claws; in others, they remind you of bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia) blossoms. Bract colors include red, orange, yellow, pink, lavender, and green. Plants form sizable clumps of large leaves and range in size from 3-ft.-tall patio plants (excellent in containers) to giants reaching upwards of 15 ft. Clumps expand with age, so provide sufficient room. Potted plants can bloom any time; those in the ground flower in spring and summer. Deer don't seem to care for them.
Heliconias are excellent cut flowers. To extend the bloom's life, cut off the bottom 12 in. of the stem; then submerge the flowers and foliage in tepid water for an hour prior to display.
H. angusta. To 410 ft. tall, with leaves to 3 ft. long. Erect flower clusters to 212 ft. long. Yellow or orange to vermilion or scarlet bracts; white or yellow-tipped green flowers.
H. bihai. To 615 ft. tall, with 2- to 6-ft.-long leaves. Erect blossom clusters 112312 ft. long. Reddish orange bracts with green margins; white to pale green flowers.
H. caribaea. WILD PLANTAIN. To 1220 ft. tall, with 5-ft.-long leaves and erect flower clusters to 112 ft. Bracts are red or yellow, often marked with contrasting colors; flowers are white with green tips.
H. latispatha. Can reach 10 ft. tall, with leaves to 5 ft. long. Erect flower clusters to 112 ft. tall, with spirally set orange, red, or yellow bracts and green-tipped yellow flowers.
H. pendula. To 8 ft. tall; 2- to 3-ft.-long leaves. Pendulous, 2-ft. inflorescence with spirally arranged red bracts, white flowers. Sometimes sold as H. collinsiana.
H. psittacorum. PARROT HELICONIA. Highly variable species; more vigorous than other heliconias. Grows 48 ft. tall, with leaves to 20 in. long, blossom clusters to 7 in. long. Bracts spread upward at a 45 angle. They vary in color; may be red, sometimes shading to cream or orange, and are often multicolored. Flowers are yellow, orange, or red, usually tipped in dark green or white. Many named selections are available.
H. rostrata. To 46 ft. tall, with 2- to 4-ft.-long leaves. Hanging inflorescences to 12 ft. long contain red bracts shading to yellow at the tip; flowers are greenish yellow.
H. schiedeana. Grows to 610 ft. tall, with leaves to 5 ft. long. Upright, 112-ft.-long blossom clusters feature red or orange-red, spiraling bracts that enclose yellow-green flowers. 'Fire and Ice' is compact, at 45 ft. high; more cold hardy than the species.
H. stricta. Variable growth to 212 ft. tall. Dark green, maroon-stalked leaves to 5 ft. long. Upright, foot-tall flower stalks hold green, white-tipped flowers in red or orange bracts with green tips and yellow edges. 'Dwarf Jamaican' grows 1123 ft. tall, with peachy red bracts. 'Firebird', to 4 ft. tall, has brilliant red bracts. 'Sharonii', to 35 ft., has orange and yellow bracts.
Heliconias grow best with rich soil, heavy feeding, and plenty of water. They prefer acid soil; chlorosis (yellow leaves with green veins) is common in alkaline soil. During periods of active growth, give plants plenty of water and feed frequently with a balanced liquid fertilizer. Stems that have flowered should be cut away to make room for new growth. Reduce watering in cool weather. Frost will kill plants to the ground, but they will resprout from rhizomes if the cold spell is short. Where winters are cold for long periods, take potted plants indoors until spring. Smaller types can be easily stored in a garage without water or light; they will turn brown but will green up when taken outdoors once winter is over.