Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve: Heliconias — Wild Thing, You Make My Heart Sing!
I would argue that heliconias are the quintessential flower of the neotropics. When tourists see their first one, especially the hanging lobster claw, they go bonkers. A more accurate title for this article would be “A Little Bit About Heliconias” because it’s a huge subject and I’m only covering a small part. Anyway, let’s begin.
Although I’m new to growing heliconias, I saw them for the first time many years ago. At the time I didn’t know what they were. That was back in 1968. I’d recently arrived in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps volunteer. After flying back and forth a couple of times from San Jose to my village (La Cuesta, on the Costa Rican-Panamanian border) I decided to take the bus. Either way, I discovered, it was a big adventure, sometimes hair-raising.
I got on the Tracopa bus in San Jose at 7 a.m. and arrived in La Cuesta just before sundown. That was eleven hours on bumpy dirt and gravel roads. Back in those days you ran out of pavement a few miles after leaving Tejar de Cartago. Then you went up to 11,000 feet as you crossed El Cerro de la Muerte (The Mountain of Death). Hey, I thought, the plane is much more practical because it flies AROUND the mountain whereas the bus goes OVER the top (the bus actually went 5,000 feet higher than the plane). But I digress.
Once we got past Palmar Sur I began seeing tall banana-looking plants growing in the ditches along the side of the Pan-American Highway (now called the Inter-American Highway). The Tico sitting next to me noticed I was gawking at something and asked me what it was. I told him it was those beautiful and interesting plants growing in the ditches. He laughed and told me they were weeds. Later I saw a road crew cutting them down with machetes. That was a horrible sight, to me anyway.
Where I live, at 5,000 feet elevation, the countryside doesn’t look exactly tropical. There are tons of cypress trees, plus some pine trees and even willows. For flowers we have many of the ones we had back in the States – day lilies, roses, Shasta daisies, and so forth. So I decided to grow heliconias to give the property a lush tropical feel and a splash of color.
Growing heliconias was kind of a problem in several ways. For one, viveros (nurseries) generally don’t carry them. Why, I’m not quite sure. Two, most heliconias grow at lower elevations, and don’t do well up here in the cool highlands. Three, I had to plant hedges and construct windbreaks to protect their large leaves. Four, when asking Ticos about heliconias they usually didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. I eventually learned that Ticos refer to them as platanillas. This led to some confusion because they also use the word platanilla for various types of ginger, cannas, and several plants in the banana (musa) family.
If you include hybrids and cultivars, there are several hundred kinds of heliconias. Almost all of them originated in the New World tropics. They grow wild in the rain forests of Costa Rica. Some related species, such as the bird of paradise (strelitziaceae) originated in South Africa, others, in Asia and the islands of the South Pacific. They have become very popular in Australia and much of the information on the Internet is from Australian websites.
Heliconias appear to have large colorful and exotic-looking flowers. Actually, these are a type of pseudo-leaf called bracts. The real flowers are in the center of the bracts and are very small. The flowers are pollinated mostly by hummingbirds. Bats sometimes pollinate them as well. Different heliconia flowers attract different types of hummingbirds. I am learning about this gradually. We have noticed that yellow-eyed leaf frogs like to hang out in our largest patch of heliconias.
Heliconias are generally grouped into two classes according to their type of flower. Those with flowers pointing upward, such as latispatha, are called erect heliconias. The ones with flowers hanging down, such as the hanging lobster claw, are called pendant.
Heliconias grow from enlarged roots called rhizomes, the same way iris do. Stalks grow from the rhizomes and each stalk produces several leaves, but only one group of flowers. To start a new plant gardeners generally dig up new rhizomes and plant them, however plants can also be started from seeds.
Most heliconias like full sun, many will take shade. Most grow naturally in hot, wet climates, such as the Caribbean and southern Pacific areas of Costa Rica. Some will grow in cooler dryer climates. They do not like wind, some, however, will cope with moderate winds. When I began growing heliconias I didn’t know which ones would adapt to a cooler, windy, and slightly dryer climate and which would take shade and which would not. So I learned the hard way.
Heliconias are heavy feeders and need lots of nutrients and water. This said, they also need good loose soil and good drainage. I fertilize mine twice a year with a mixture of aged compost and horse manure, topsoil, and rice hulls (granza), to which I add charcoal and a commercial fertilizer high in magnesium and calcium. The latter is called Surco Mejorador, which I bought at the agricultural supply store in Heredia (Cooperativa La Libertad). I go heavy on the compost and manure. For the larger varieties, I’m not talking about adding a few shovels full, but wheelbarrows full. If you live in the Central Valley or northwest Costa Rica you should mulch your heliconias during the dry season in order to help maintain soil moisture. For this I use hay and mulch I produce from my brush and tree chipper. If you are blessed with excellent soil, you can ignore much of this advice. Lucky you.
Willow Zuchowski provides a nice write-up about heliconias in her book, Tropical Plants of Costa Rica.
SOME VARIETIES I HAVE GROWN
One of the most commonly grown heliconias in Costa Rica is the pretty little parrot’s flower (Heliconia psittacoram), called avecilla (literally, smallish bird) in Spanish. It’s relatively short for a heliconia, growing to a height of about three feet. Be careful where you put it, it will spread quickly into adjacent flowerbeds and your lawn. This is one that can tolerate quite a bit of shade. Many viveros have this one in stock. Psittacoram came originally from northeastern South America.
A relatively large one we’ve had success with is the bright yellow Heliconia clinophila. It grows to about nine feet and can tolerate moderate winds. It does best in full sun, but grows pretty well in the shade too. It makes a spectacular cut flower. By the way, most cut heliconias should last one to two weeks in a vase of water. Clinophila is native to Costa Rica and likes to grow on steep, wet slopes at middle elevations. The first time I saw one was on a cliff next to the La Paz Waterfall in La Cinchona, which, as it turns out, is the exact elevation of our house, only we live on the opposite side of the mountain range.
I’ve had my best luck with Heliconia latispatha. I started a patch on the west side of the house below the veranda. It receives afternoon sun, gets the full brunt of the rains in the rainy season, and is protected from the high winds during the dry season. It grows to about sixteen feet and the flowers are at the level of the veranda, so we can sit and watch the rufous-tailed hummingbirds hover and dart among the flowers. Our flowers are red and yellow, but there is also an orange and yellow variety. This one is native to southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.
Rostrata (Hanging Lobster Claw)
Heliconia rostrata is the one tourists go ga-ga over. With good reason. There is another one commonly called lobster claw (heliconia wagneriana) but it is erect; rostrata is pendant. I love the wagneriana but don’t think it will grow at our elevation. We’ve discovered there are at least two kinds of rostrata, one that has a huge row of hanging flowers and is about ten feet tall, and another that has fewer flowers and grows to only about six-to-eight feet. Our friends Dan and Nan live about a mile from us and have a patch of the larger variety. We are about 400 feet higher elevation and it is windier here. With that little difference, they can grow the large variety and we can’t. But I’m not boo-hooing because I actually like the smaller and less spectacular variety more. Rostrata originated in Brazil.
Stricta (Dwarf Jamaican)
I think our Heliconia stricta may have come from my sister-in-law’s farm in San Carlos. It’s the shortest heliconia I’ve ever seen, growing clumpy and low to the ground, only about eighteen inches tall. It seems to grow best in partial shade. It’s flowers tend to be hidden by its bushy leaves. We cut the flowers and put them in flower arrangements. Although small for heliconias, it is a very attractive flower. I could be mistaken about where it came from. People know I’m looking for heliconias and strangers come up with a rhizome and say, “Aqui, tome esta platanilla (Here, have this heliconia),” with no information about where it came from, size, growing conditions or anything. The stricta likes part shade the best, but is not too picky about light conditions.
This one was given to us by don Luís, a ne’er-do-well alcoholic neighbor who passed away a few years ago. He was quite an interesting character who knew a lot about plant-based medicines and he gave us many unusual plants. When we got the rhizome we had no idea how big it was going to get. Incredibly, it has grown to almost twenty feet tall and is one of the tallest plants on our property, even taller than most of our trees. I fertilize this one heavily. It is from northern South America and there are many different varieties of all sizes. The clump of Heliconia bihai is where our yellow-eyed leaf frogs like to hang out. When we see this plant we always remember don Luís.
Final note: when you go on the Internet looking for pictures of heliconias you will find many different names that have been invented by plant breeders.