Tropical Plants–Heliconias

Heliconias are strange. When we first saw them, before we knew what they were, we called them “alien plants” because they looked like they might have popped out of unlikely places at strange times and perhaps be a bit aggressive. They do look as though they could catch a stray finger and not let go, much like a Mexican woven straw pescanovias or Chinese finger trap. Heliconias seem to love the hot, damp weather of Zihuatanejo and tropical coastal wetlands, although they apparently thrive also at higher elevations and cooler temperatures, some varieties even surviving frosts. They are said to be quite intolerant of drought conditions, however.

There are what are called pendant heliconias, whose showy flowers hang downward off the tall stem, and erect heliconias, whose flowers spike upward toward the sky. While traveling through the Yucatan several years ago, heading northward in the rainy season along the gulf coast of Veracruz near Villahermosa, we drove past kilometers of flooded fields carpeted in spiky heliconias blossoming in orange and yellow. The bracts form cups that hold can water and sometimes a myriad of insects. They provide an important food source for tropical hummingbirds. Their long, fan-like leaves are, indeed, reminiscent of the banana plant; it’s no wonder they were considered part of that family.

I have seen so many types of heliconia plants and flowers in Mexico that I recently thought to investigate just how many there are. Well, it is a bit confusing to a non-botanist, because sources cite anywhere from forty to over two hundred individual species. It appears the heliconias were formerly classified in the same family as the bananas but were later confirmed as distinct and placed in their own family,  Heliconiaceae, of the order Zingiberales (which does include bananas, cannas, the bird of paradise, and gingers). The Heliconia Society International ( specifies that the genus Heliconiaceae comprises “perhaps” 225 species.

It can be easy for the layperson to mistake the flowers and plants of their relatives, the gingers and the bird of paradise, for heliconias, even though there are important physical and botanical differences. Below are some photos of some of the heliconias we’ve had in our garden or have seen by the wayside, as well as a couple of shots of similar ginger flowers.