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What Is Heliconia?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2014
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Heliconia is a genus of tropical flowering plants that are notable for the presence of large brilliantly colored bracts, or highly modified leaves, which hide the narrow flowers. They have a distinctive appearance that evokes the tropics for many people. Some nicknames for heliconia include wild plantains, lobster claws, and false bird of paradise. They are sometimes grown as landscape plants, but in many areas of the world they are more suitable as houseplants since they require a warm environment.

The heliconia is named after Mount Helicon in Greek mythology, which was the home of the muses, who were nine goddesses of the sciences and the arts. Within the genus, most of the heliconia species share common characteristics. They range in height from 1.5 to 15 feet (0.45 to 4.5 m) tall. The thick, stiff, vibrant green leaves are often compared to banana leaves, with an oblong shape and a length that often exceeds 3 feet (0.9 m).

The bracts are specialized leaves that grow at the base of a flower, and in Heliconia species they are highly modified and very showy, with brilliant coloring and significant size, often hiding the flowers from view. Available colors include orange, red, yellow, purple, pink, or green. The flowers themselves are often narrow and tubular, with shapes adapted to fit a hummingbird's beak. The plants are often pollinated exclusively by hummingbirds.

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The native habitat of a heliconia is tropical, and it's found growing wild in areas ranging from the tropical parts of South and North America, spreading westward through the Pacific islands to Indonesia. It thrives in high heat and humidity, and is only suitable for outdoor landscaping in areas that are warm for much of the year. In areas with cooler climates it can do quite well as a houseplant. It is said to bring a distinct tropical feel to areas where it is planted.

When used as a landscape plant, a heliconia needs full to partial sun, and should be planted in well-drained soil. Soil rich in organic materials is preferable, and fertilization with a granular or soluble balanced fertilizer is recommended. It needs to be watered frequently, but shouldn't be over watered because excessive saturation can cause the roots to rot. In areas where temperatures drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 degrees Celsius), they should be kept as houseplants rather than planted outside.

Heliconia can be propagated, or multiplied, using seeds or by dividing the rhizomes. The rhizomes are bulbous root structures that send out buds and shoots to grow new plants. Pieces of the rhizome with shoots or buds on them can be planted separately from the original plant and should sprout into new plants in a few months.

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