September 20, 2012

Giants and Dwarfs-A Tale of Heliconias- part 2- the Dwarfs 

H. aurantiaca
a petite cane type, 
growing to 6 feet
 In the substantial Heliconia genus of 300+ species, there is a wide variance in just about all aspects of plant size and growing habits. Like bamboos, there are dwarf and giant types, spreading and clumping types. Some species are prized specimens and some are invasive weeds. In this blog, I'll look at the "dwarf" size group ( under 6 feet tall). As with many plant groups, some are very petite and fairly fragile, while some others are of modest size and quite robust. Most of these species make decent nursery plants in large containers, provided that the potting soil is rich and well drained, with an even supply of moisture. Growing this group in the ground can be easy enough, if there is wind protection, good humidity and deep soil with great drainage.  

H. longiflora
an understory grower,
growing to 4 feet tall

One of the down sides to growing this group of species is their short supply; seeds and rhizomes are uncommon. There are a number of Heliconia growers in Puerto Rico who collectively have a vast array of species and export seeds, so there is hope to see more of these species in cultivation. There are many species of small stature, and some of the more robust species, such as H. angusta, are available from tissue-culture and appear in retail stores in garden centers in this area with some regularity.

H. angusta
The Christmas Heliconia
 The stalwart 'Jamaica Dwarf' can actually grow to 4 or 5 feet with enough water and fertilizer, but is more commonly seen at 2-3 feet. In an odd twist, some of the fast-spreading species in the psittacorum / choconiana section are widely marketed in flower in very small pots, as small as 6 inches. These "petite" plants have been chemically treated to regulate their growth, resulting in a plant that flowers prematurely at a fraction of its mature height. This chemical regulation wears off, and the dwarf can grow into a substantial plant in short order !

'Dwarf Jamaican'

'Carli's Sharonii'

As flashy landscape plants, Heliconias are peerless; few other plants can make such a statement. Given a bit of growing know-how, a gardener can enjoy the color and panache of this group of plants in fairly small confines. Remember that the plants need rather tropical conditions: heat ( above 55 F at all times), bright filtered light, even moisture, rich and well-drained soil, and plenty of room to grow. Heliconias are not a set-and-forget plant, but with a little attention you get a lot of reward. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens   

September 13, 2012

Giants and Dwarfs- A Tale of Heliconias
Part 1- the Giants

H. longissima
the flower stems are over 7 feet long,
and start halfway up the plant

Heliconias are hard to resist regarding their flashy flowers and grand stature. There are 400 + species in the genus, but not all species are giant plants with brilliant flowers. There are odd combinations of color and plant size at both ends of the spectrum, but let's start with some of the larger species, with plant sizes over 6 meters tall. If you visit the wet New World tropics, you'll see these plants festooning the hillsides, and the plants look petite from a distance. The problem is that in the forested tropics, distances are deceiving; the closer you get to a "small" plant, the same effect as when approaching a mountain or volcano, the larger it gets. In many cases, it would be hard to get far enough away from a mountain Heliconia to see it clearly, since there is often a lot of plant growth around it.

Since many of the giant species grow in montane areas, often in protected valleys, they are protected from strong winds, with the plants often bathed in fog. The stems can grow to enormous dimensions, some species grow to 30 to 40 feet tall, with flower stems 10 feet or more in length. With such conditions, the plants have no tolerance for dry winds, cold weather, or storm damage. This makes growing them in the subtropics a real challenge. 

H. pogonantha
var. pogonantha
 Growing these species in the seasonal sub-tropics means that a grower has to choose a site carefully, preferably on the south side of a building or otherwise protected from the cold north winds. There should be windbreak plantings on all sides, but with sunlight at least 4 hours per day. Ideally there should be morning light until 11 a.m., high shade for the hottest afternoon sun from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then sunlight until sunset. The planting soil should be well-drained, but still hold water, or the plant should be irrigated daily during hot weather. The soil should be not only plentiful in the growing area, but fairly deep, with at least 50% of the soil volume as organic material, with balanced-analysis fertilizer mixed in. Controlled-release fertilizers such as Nutricote, Osmocote, Plantacote and Scott-Kote are all well suited to this purpose. Choose a 6-month release and the "high" rates for fertilizer incorporation.  

a hybrid of H. pogonantha and H. mariae,
aptly called 'Dinosaur'
 Although many of the really giant species are pendant-flower types, there are several giant upright-flower types, and one of the easiest to grow is 'Criswick Red'. This is a stout grower and can grow to 20 feet in shaded areas, 10-12 feet in sunny areas. The inflorescence is regal, deep red, and up to 18 bracts in height. This vigorous hybrid is a cross of the species bihai and caribaea, with the grex yielding many dozens of excellent and vigorous offspring.     

'Criswick Red'
 If you have the conditions to grow this group of Heliconias, their inflorescences are amazing, colorful, and surprisingly long lasting. Be informed that the plants need special care, but are worth the effort.There are many mail order firms that sell rhizomes, and seeds are shipped easily worldwide. These are resource-intensive plants, suited for those with the time, climate and skill to grow them. I always encourage growers to try one or two of them, give them their due needs, and wait for the "fireworks".

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens