Heliconia plants are mostly evergreen perennials native to tropical Central and Southern America. Their enormous glossy leaves are similar to banana plants and can grow to 120cm long. Their flowers are similar to bird of paradise (Strelizia) blooms but instead of having upright flowerheads at the top of a stem like a bird’s plumage, heliconia flowers are arranged alternately all the way along the stem. Depending on the species, they come in shades of red, orange, green and yellow.
With around 100 varieties to choose from, you might think there's a heliconia for everyone. However most aren't hardy enough to grow outside in the UK although some can be placed outdoors in summer, as long as evening temperatures don't fall below 15ºC.
One of the most well known varieties in the UK is the hanging lobster claw plant or false bird of paradise (Heliconia rostrata). Native to Ecuador and Peru, it grows from rhizomes and will spread indefinitely if given the right conditions and left to its own devices. It can grow to 6m tall in its native habitat and can be susceptible to wind damage if grown outdoors due to its large leaves. However, in the UK, it’s grown in tropical glasshouses as it needs a minimum winter temperature of 15ºC. It would be an impressive plant for a large, heated greenhouse.
Don't have a large heated greenhouse? Parrot’s flower (Heliconia psittacorum) is hardy down to 13ºC, thrives in bright, indirect light and reaches only 50cm in height. This makes it a good choice for a house plant. With the right light levels it will produce exotic red and yellow blooms reliably from spring to autumn.
Heliconia schiedeana is the hardiest heliconia but is tricky to get hold of in the UK and is not quite hardy enough to grow outside all year round. Native to the mountainous regions of east Mexico, it's frost hardy and can withstand temperatures down to around -5ºC for a short while, however it might not reliably bear flowers. It can thrive outdoors all year round in the Mediterranean but needs winter protection further north and, in the UK, is best brought indoors for winter.
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How to grow heliconia
All heliconias thrive in bright, warm conditions, in fertile, moist but well-drained soil. Some species need the conditions of a heated glass house to thrive while Heliconia psittacorum can be grown as a house plant. Heliconia schiedeana can be grown outside for most of the year but is still not hardy enough to risk leaving outdoors in winter.
Where to grow heliconia
Heliconia rostrata needs a sheltered position and should be grown under glass. Heliconia psittacorum can be grown as a house plant and needs a spot in bright, indirect light. If growing outside, Heliconia schiedeana needs a sunny, sheltered spot in fertile soil, but needs bringing indoors for winter.
How to plant heliconia
Most heliconia species are best grown in a pot so you have the option to move them outdoors in summer. Alternatively plant your heliconia in your greenhouse border if your greenhouse can be kept above 15ºC in winter. As a house plant, Heliconia psittacorum can be kept in the pot you bought it in and will need repotting every two to three years. Plant all species in fertile, moist but well-drained soil or compost, at the same depth they were planted previously.
How to care for heliconia
Keep heliconia house plants moist and feed every two to three weeks through the growing season. Ensure plants get enough bright light – if they don't get enough it's unlikely they will produce many flowers. Heliconias thrive in humidity, so mist plants regularly, especially if the room is dry.
How to prune heliconia
Heliconias don't need any major pruning. Deadhead any faded flowers and cut out any dead or damaged leaves.
How to propagate heliconia
Heliconia spread by rhizomes so the easiest way to propagate these plants is by division. Remove the plant from its container and separate the rhizomes. Depending on the size of your plant, either pull these apart by hand or use a spade or pruning saw. Replant each rhizome with a stem attached.
Pests and diseases
The main pest affecting Heliconia rostrata in glasshouses is red spider mite. It may also be prone to mealybugs.
If it’s red spider mite you’ll notice fine webbing on your plant’s leaves and stems as well as mottling on the leaf surface. Use a magnifying glass to check for mites and eggs on the undersides of leaves. Increase humidity in the greenhouse as red spider mites like dry conditions and use a biological control if it’s a large infestation.
Mealybugs are sap sucking, white waxy looking insects. Either pick them off by hand (or with tweezers) or use a biological control.
Advice on buying heliconia
- There are many heliconia varieties but only a few are available to buy in the UK. You may be able to find more varieties if you search for seed
- The easiest variety to grow indoors is Heliconia psittacorum as it grows to only 50cm and thrives in indirect light
- Always check plants for signs of damage or disease on arrival or before buying at the garden centre
Where to buy heliconia
Varieties of heliconia to grow
Heliconia rostrata – best grown in a large heated greenhouse or conservatory for a dramatic display. Height x Spread: 4m x 4m
Heliconia lathispatha 'Orange Gyro' – an orange flowered variety that's available to grow from seed. H x S: 2-4m x indefinite
Heliconia psittacorum 'Hawaii' – this variety of heliconia has yellow and red flowers in summer and is best grown as a house plant. H x S: 50cm x 50cm