Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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Heliconia subulata

Heliconia stricta 'Dwarf Jamacian Red'

Heliconia spissa

Heliconia schiedeana

Heliconia pendula

Heliconia latispatha





First published in September 03. Updated and re-edited January 2010.

I hated last Winter. It rained every day for month after month. It was water-torture and then even worse, mud-torture. I ran away for a holiday in Bali. Now I'm back here shivering, jetlagged and feeling sorry for myself. So now I console myself with Heliconias. New Heliconia seed from Bali and new plants from other growers will get me through the bad times.

It was a great holiday visiting wonderful gardens, including the home of the world-renowned tropical landscape designer, Made Wijaya who has written several beautiful books featuring his own garden and work projects around the tropical world. (These are "Tropical Garden Design", "Modern Tropical Garden Design" & "Architecture of Bali" published by Thames & Hudson and available through Touchwood Books).

What a feast. I've come back inspired.

I collected seed of many tropical plants that are difficult to get here. And yes, I hasten to add, MAF customs gave their seal of approval!

I brought in seed of two new (to me) Heliconias, one of them, Heliconia stricta 'Dwarf Jamaican Red' only grows about 50cm high with bright red lobster-claw flowers. It was growing at 2000m on the volcano, Mt Bratan, where temperatures are relatively cool. It has subsequently proved to be still too tender to survive outdoors in NZ but makes a great potted conservatory plant, flowering almost continuously.

I also collected ripe seed from the Bali Botanic Gardens of Heliconia spissa which has velvety cerise and cream flower spikes above unusual shaggy leaves. It grows 1.5m to 2m tall and is hardy in full sun. It withstands wind better than other Heliconias. The distinctive split leaves are an attractive feature even without the flowers and this has proved to be a winner for Northern gardens in NZ. Heliconia spissa comes originally from Mexico and Belize near the coolest Northern edge of Heliconia territory.

While they are a big tropical family from South and Central America, a handful of them will grow here in the warmest parts of NZ.

The first Heliconia to be widely grown in Northern NZ gardens was Heliconia subulata. It comes from the cooler Andean highlands of Peru and has vivid, glossy scarlet bracts and yellow florets in an upright head held above the 1.8m leaves. It spreads quite vigorously like a Canna by suckering and needs room to expand. It can take several years to flower and the leaves damage easily in the wind. Both H. subulata and H. spissa flower from November to March in NZ.

The best of them for NZ gardens is Heliconia schiedeana. It comes from the cooler Andean highlands of Peru and has vivid, glossy scarlet bracts and yellow florets in an upright head held above the 1.8m leaves. The flower spikes emerge in November and continue to flower until the following October before we cut them down to show off the new season's emerging flowers. A handsome and reliably hardy plant which remains compact and tidy for years.

Heliconia pendula is a lovely pendulous species with dark red bracts but I have found it a shy bloomer and prone to wind damage. Another beautiful species is Heliconia latispatha with large upright, orange flower spikes but this one is also fairly marginal and seldom flowers here.

They all need good shelter from wind and frost, but will tolerate full sun or bright dappled light. Soil must be light and loose.

Planting time for any of these outdoors is Spring and Summer while the soil is warming up.

Heliconias, like gingers and Cannas can look messy, so an annual grooming is needed to remove all the old, spent stems in Spring when the new growth is emerging. It must be remembered that most of them flower on the previous Summer's growth, so only remove the stems that have flowered last year. The result is that classic tropical look with bold, lushly layered foliage, with a scattering of hot-red, orange or pink flowers.

Because of their height, Heliconias are really background plants that need to be combined with lower-growing plants in front to cover their stalky knees. They make a perfect back-drop for smaller, strongly-coloured plants like Bromeliads, massed red Impatiens, or my favourite, the burgundy foliaged Cordyline "Red Fountain".

Massed Philodendron Xanadu would look great and so would a mass of the new "Black Velvet" taro to keep the Heliconias from showing too much leg.

So if you can't quite afford the airfare to tropical climes when the mud gets too deep, you could always consider a Heliconia fix in the conservatory. One of those tall gas-fueled heaters from Ponsonby road restaurants, a deck chair and a very tall Mai Tai would complete the feeling.

Desperate measures for desperate times.

(Copyright Russell Fransham 2010)

Heliconia rostrata

Heliconia lingulata

Heliconia psittacorum "Golden Torch"

Heliconia angusta "Holiday"

Heliconia spissa (Bali Botanical Gardens)


Heliconias are a classic emblem of the tropics with their head-high lush leaves like green canoe paddles and bizarre, extravagant flowers in the brightest shades of red and yellow. They have evolved to be pollinated by hummingbirds and bats, so their nectar flow is heavy and rich. I am wondering when the local tui family are going to discover the liquid riches under their noses?

While there are several hardy species (see article above) that handle NZ's warmest climate zones, most of the other 250 species are too tropical to flower or even survive our Winters. But some of these make unusual and dramatic conservatory plants. There are at least a couple of commercial growers of tropical Heliconias in NZ whose hothouses supply the nation's florists with their extravagant and expensive blooms.

In fact, for home gardeners many tropical Heliconias can look good in big tubs outdoors for the Summer and then dragged into the conservatory over the Winter. They would need good wind shelter and some protection from midday sun while outdoors.

There is however no getting away from the fact that these are tropical plants. Warmth, free drainage and shelter all year, with frequent feeding in the Spring and Summer is the secret. Thinning and re-potting every couple of years into fresh potting mix combined with good control of mites and thrips and maintenance of a humid atmosphere indoors will deliver gorgeous blooms and foliage. Temperatures should not slip below about 15 degrees for more than a few hours.

Heliconia rostrata is the queen of Heliconias with its metre-long hanging lobster-claw flowers. A large tub and filtered bright light will produce almost continuous flowering as long as it is fed regularly on high potash fertiliser. Re-potting every couple of years will ensure strong, healthy growth.

Heliconia angusta "Holiday" has a dramatic vivid red and white flower head in late Winter over a two month period. Its handsome metre-long leaves are heavy and durable, similar in size and shape to Strelitzia reginae, making it useful as a foliage specimen too.

Heliconia stricta "Dwarf Jamaican Red" grows only 50cm to 60cm high and flowers almost continuously. It will need dividing at least every two years.

Heliconia lingulata is a bushy, broad-leaved 1.4m plant with large golden-yellow upright spikes through Summer. Its lustrous, velvety leaves are especially beautiful when grown in dappled light and are reason enough to grow this beautiful plant.

Heliconia psittacorum "Golden Torch" flowers continuously as long as it is kept warm, above about 15 degrees. Its narrower leaves and dainty yellow flowers make a prolific show very quickly. There are many different varieties of Heliconia psittacorum with different colours which are commonly used by florists.

We always carry a few of each of these species in stock but despite my best efforts (many times!) I have found that while some of these will survive outdoors, (just) they cannot flower because the previous Summer's growth collapses during Winter, taking the flower buds with it.

There are many other Heliconias in NZ in collectors' hothouses but most will not perform well outdoors. If I come across others that look like they might, rest assured I'll let you know.


(Copyright Russell Fransham 2003)