Read about Carla Black by
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 Some species of one of the world's showiest tropical plants
are great additions around, even in, the pond!

Heliconias That Like Wet Feet

by Carla Black, Volcán, Chiriquí, República de Panamá
Click images to enlarge

Advice for growing Heliconias usually sounds like this, "Provide bright light and even moisture in rich, well-drained soil." To a large degree, that is exactly what Heliconias growing in the wild receive. Mostly, they are light-gap specialists in the tropical rain forests of the New World.

But with some 350 species, there is room for diversity. Six species are native to South Pacific islands, a few species tolerate open sun in seasonally dry areas, and others hide in dark shade on the forest floor.

At least one Heliconia, H. marginata, grows almost exclusively in standing water in the wild. Other species, such as H. psittacorum (Parrot Flower), tolerate wet conditions, although they grow equally well in drier areas.

H. marginata lives up to its name as a marginal plant. It normally grows in full sun or light shade in swampy conditions. The leaves are unusual among Heliconias in the way they hold themselves upright. The flower color ranges from clear yellow to red with yellow trim. The plant can grow to 5 meters (15 feet) under ideal conditions.

The mostly red inflorescence of
H. marginata on the roadside in
Costa Rica.

Heliconia marginata 

A swampy area on the outskirts of Yaviza, Darién Province, Panamá, has been completely taken over by H. marginata.

H. psittacorum 'Petra' in Ray Jerome's
pond in Puerto Rico.
A friend in Puerto Rico, Raymond Jerome, came home one day with H. psittacorum 'Petra' but didn't have time to plant it. So he set it in his little pond to keep it hydrated. Three years later, it is still there, perched on a rock and taking whatever nutrients from the water, since it never even got a pot. 

There are many cultivars of H. psittacorum. Most grow to a maximum of 2 meters (6 feet) I don't know yet if all cultivars enjoy water equally.  

Luzmilla (Chiqui) Arroyo displays more wet and wild H. psittacorum photos from the Victoria expedition in Bolivia earlier in 2006. The same page features H. episcopalis. This is the first reference I have seen to that species growing in water; there is a lot to learn about the habits and tolerances of Heliconias.

Other species known to grow in water in the wild are H. standleyi from Colombia and Peru, and H. curtispatha from Panama. Both of these plants are amongst the big Heliconias, easily reaching 7 meters (21 feet) tall.

Heliconias are striking plants, but they're only for those of us in the tropics and some brave souls in the sub-tropics. Generally speaking, they don't tolerate prolonged temperatures below 40 degrees F (4-5C). Heliconias are usually grown from rhizomes. Seeds are an option if it is difficult for you to acquire rhizomes, if you have a source for fresh seeds, and if you have plenty of patience for germination.

To learn if you can grow Heliconias in your area and about any special care they might need, contact local nurseries or gardening groups. I am happy to answer questions about Heliconias. Write me at

H. episcopalis in my yard,
in a well-drained spot

H. curtispatha in the wild.

An untidy clump of
H. curtispatha in a Panamanian swamp.

Pendent inflorescence of the
rainforest giant H. standleyi.

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