How to grow and care for heliconia

Heliconia psittacorum 'Golden Torch'

There are around 100 species of helicona, most of which are evergreen perennials native to tropical Central and Southern America. Their enormous glossy leaves are similar to banana plants and can grow to 120cm long. As heliconia can’t be grown in frost prone areas, there are few regions where these plants can be grown outdoors, although some varieties could be placed outdoors in summer. Heliconia flowers come in shades of red, orange, green and yellow.

One of the most well known varieties in the UK is Heliconia rostrata, known as the false bird of paradise. It has similar exotic flowers to bird of paradise (Strelizia) 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. The common name for Heliconia rostrata is hanging lobster claw because of its bright red and yellow bracts.

This exotic perennial is native to Ecuador and Peru. It grows from rhizomes and will spread indefinitely if left to its own devices. It can grow to 6m tall and can be susceptible to wind damage if grown outdoors because of its large leaves. In the UK it’s grown in glasshouses as it needs a minimum winter temperature of 15ºC. It would be an impressive plant for a large greenhouse.

Heliconia psittacorum is an easier plant to grow in the UK. It can be grown as a house plant in bright, indirect light and reaches only 50cm in height. It’s also known as parrot’s flower and has exotic red and yellow blooms.

How to grow heliconia

Grow heliconia in bright, warm conditions. These plants can’t be left outdoors in winter as they need a steady temperature above 15ºC.


Where to grow heliconia

Heliconia rostrata flowers
Heliconia rostrata flowers

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.


How to plant heliconia

Heliconia psittacorum
Heliconia psittacorum

Plant heliconia in a pot so you have the option to move it outdoors during the warm summer months or plant in greenhouse borders if your greenhouse can be kept above 15ºC in winter. Heliconia psittacorum can be kept in the pot you bought it in and will need repotting every two to three years.


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. Heliconia thrive in humidity, so mist plants regularly, especially if the room is dry.

How to prune heliconia

Heliconia doesn’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 only grows to 50cm in height
  • Always check plants for signs of damage or disease on arrival or before buying at the garden centre

Where to buy heliconia

More varieties of heliconia

Heliconia lathispatha ‘Orange Gyro’ – an orange flowered variety that is available to grow from seed. H x S: 2-4m x indefinite

Heliconia psittacorum ‘Hawaii’ – this variety of heliconia has yellow and red flowers during the summer and is best grown as a house plant.  H x S: 1-1.5m x indefinite

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