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Heliconia varieties

February 16, 2013
By H.I. JEAN SHIELDS (Special to The Breeze) , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

One of the nicest things about gardening in this Southwest Zone is how fast everything grows, when you are not really paying attention. We want everything to grow and bloom or produce fruit and veggies faster than Mother Nature allows, however it is the things that are suddenly popping up from an unexpected space that make gardening fun.

I hear other gardeners complaining all the time about a stray marigold bloom or a stray caladium leaf popping up in a space that is supposed to be a space left to be planted later in the season.

An annual is supposed to be active and enjoyed one year, not behave as a perennial which has a longer life span. However in our climate you can never be too sure what will actually perform on time or disappear in a timely manner.

I had not been out to the west side of the house for a couple of weeks to poke around and really check to see what was coming up. The little cold snaps we were experiencing would certainly hold back any serious growth over there.

Not the case. I unexpectedly came across a stunning 5-flowered amaryllis plant that I swear was not there about 10 days ago. Of course the thin green stalk of the plant just did not catch my eye, until it held 5 blooms. I have several amaryllis still setting around with no stalk in sight. They are healthy green with twin leaves but no sign of a flower stalk as yet. Others have bloomed late December and through January and are now just trimmed a little and setting in some shade to rest up for next year.

I think I sat that blooming plant where it would be protected from the cold snaps but would get the afternoon sun. Not much watering goes on in that space unless I come and do it. However this is another case if a plant is happy where it is, it will thrive in spite of us.

The other really nice surprise is that right next to the amaryllis is a really tall plant that does not bloom well for me, had three slender stalks of flowering lobster claw heliconia, pendula. They look a bit frail but then I have not fed them for a bit. They also like a moist soil and in their particular space they mostly will receive enough watering only from me, which makes it hard for them to thrive because I am not a dependable gardener when it comes to keeping things moist.

I started these heliconias because they are so tropical looking and beautiful and they are gorgeous used in flower designing. Also they were given to me by a very talented designer who shares her plants with many friends.

It is very rewarding to be able to go out in your own yard and find dried and fresh things to use for a design in competition and in your own home. I know, it is even better when you plan ahead and grow things in a timely manner and you will have just the right material at the right time you need it.

However, some of us are timely challenged and will probably never change our ways so we must make due with what we have when we find it out there.

Right now it is sad that I have just completed a design competition at the Bell Tower shops in Fort Myers and do not need the lovely things. Even worse there is a Fort Myers Lee County bi-annual flower show the end of this month at the Eco living Center at Rutenberg Park, Fort Myers, and those blooms will be a month old and look decent enough but I cannot believe they will look "perfect" which they will need to be as an entry in a design or even as a cut specimen.

These particular hanging heliconias are truly amazing hanging around your garden, however there are other varieties of heliconias that you may enjoy just as much and they grow as a clump about 3 feet tall with their brilliant brackets peeking straight up from an abundance of tall thick, bright green leaves.

No scent. But the same beautiful orange as the bird of paradise plant and really will remind you of that particular plant but will not grow as huge. It may be a bit invasive.

The heliconia is from the Family Heliconiaceae, Genus Heliconia, and is the only genus of this family.

It is native to South America and prefers a temperature of 60 to 80 degrees. I have grown mine for over 3 years and it has survived well even with our occasional spell of temperatures in the 40s. A prolonged cold spell does discolor the plants but if they become mushy, I will cut them down to the soil line. When they are dried out I can just pull them out easily. I have only done that once a couple years ago when we experienced a weeks worth of low 40-degree temperature. They were not the only plants that definitely did not tolerate that long of a cold spell.

I had several crotons that looked like someone had tortured them. They all revived and I trimmed them back when all of the cold spells were definitely over and they showed signs of new growth. Do not go cutting immediately following damage from a cold spell.

Heliconias were named after Mount Helicon from Greek mythology. They are closely related to gingers, bananas and palms. They are a tropical herbaceous perennial plant from rhizomes, their brilliant colors of orange, yellow red, pink and even green as well as their curious habit of growing in a pendulous or contorted, as well as in an upright position makes them a fun addition to your landscape.

They mostly prefer 6 hours of sun, or maybe afternoon sun peeking through something taller and offering some protection from our hot afternoon sun. You need to notice what your plant tag says because some plants prefer a shady life.

A pendulous species that is easy to grow is heliconia rostrata and will not grow as tall as heliconia pendula, which will be 10 to 20 feet tall. I do not see many pendulous plants in the regular garden centers.

They can be mulched and like some compost around them. I do not mulch mine.

I fertilize mine twice a year but some growers feed more often. A 10-10-10 is OK. Bone meal is great or a 13-5-13. Organic matter always good.

To divide, dig carefully about 6 or 8 inches to rhizome, roots will be deeper. Break apart with your hands or a small knife and replant same depth allowing about a 2-foot space between. Soil should be moist, but do not drown the newly planted rhizomes.

Cut off any of the large leaves that the wind has torn and all old leaves. Also cut stems way down to the soil after it has produced its flower, it will not bloom again.

There is so much more to be said for these unusual plants please investigate on the computer or at your favorite nursery. Beautiful photos.

By the time you are reading this we will have had some real rain and another cold weather event. Remember to be happy it will be short lived.

Happy gardening until we meet again.

H.I. Jean Shields is a past president of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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