St. Vincent and Grenadines Association of Toronto

Heliconia

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Heliconia spp. - FALSE BIRD OF PARADISE; WILD PLANTAIN

(Photos by Fred Prescod, except Heliconia psittacorum at top left by Carlos Charles)

Native to tropical regions of South and Central America (including the Caribbean), as well as the islands of the South Pacific, plants of the botanical genus Heliconia (pronounced hel-i-k?'ni-a) are noted for their strikingly beautiful bracts. Botanically the bracts are actually highly modified leaves that are loosely referred to as flowers. These waxy or leathery, brilliantly coloured, boat-shaped bracts enclose the true flower clusters. In the Americas, hummingbirds exclusively pollinate red, yellow, pink and orange Heliconia species, while nectar-feeding bats pollinate green species.

In the Caribbean the plants are collectively known as wild plantains or wild bananas, although the botanical name Heliconia is also used as a common name. The name heliconia is thought to originate from Mount Helicon, the favourite haunt of the Muses in Greek mythology.

Heliconias thrive in humid lowland areas in St. Vincent, yet most species can be found in and above the middle elevation rain forest habitats. Additionally some species grow along roads and riverbanks, and in patches of light in forested areas.

Worldwide more than 100 Heliconia species are known, and these range in size from 3 feet to 30 feet. They are often grouped according to their growth habit or the appearance of the inflorescence (the arrangement of flowers and accessory parts). For example, some authorities differentiate a type called lobster claw or wild plantain. These are quite common in St. Vincent as exemplified by Heliconia caribaea, which is also called balisier. Another group contains the type known as hanging lobster-claw or false bird-of-paradise, as exemplified by Heliconia rostrata. A very popular and widely cultivated species is Heliconia psittacorum, known variously as parrot's flower, parrot's beak or parakeet flower. In fact a cultivar (cultivated variety) of this species carries the name 'St. Vincent Red'. This one has orange-red bracts. Another highly cultivated species is Heliconia wagneriana, which has its peak blooming period in April and May and is consequently called Easter heliconia.

In general, heliconias are used for floral material, or as ornamental plants, because of their ease of cultivation and hybridization as well as their stunning appearance in form and colour. In some Caribbean and Central American countries the leaves of some species are used for thatching roofs, or for wrapping food. In Brazil the roots and seeds of selected species are used for their medicinal healing properties. In other parts of South America the leaves and flowers of particular species are believed to cause and/or heal illnesses of a supernatural nature.

Fred Prescod
Horticultural Educator

 

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