Hello Heliconias

April 25, 2014

Heliconias are a common flower in the cut flower industry but most people have no idea where they are naturally found. Heliconias are found throughout the Neotropics as well as on many Pacific Islands west to Indonesia. Because of the beautiful, often long draping flowers of the heliconias, the plants are also very desirable as garden plants in regions where it does not get cold. In areas of the U.S., that includes South Florida, South Texas and Southern California. 

Heliconia are a very diverse group of plants with over 100 species. Most are exquisitely shaped and brightly colored, with reds, orange and yellow. The shape of the flowers, in most species is quite unique and they almost appear to not have an opening to the individual flower. Upon close examination, they do have an opening at the bottom of each flower and there are certain species of birds that are responsible for pollinating many of the Neotropical species...the hermit hummingbirds. There are a number of species of hermit hummers but all have rather long curved beaks that neatly fit up and into the flowers of heliconia. Long-tailed hermits are beautiful birds that frequent stands of heliconia along the Amazon River. It is not uncommon to be admiring a picturesque stand of heliconia flowers during an excursion on IE's Amazon River cruise and have a long-tailed hermit fly in for a visit. Lucky observers gasp at the site of a big hummingbird with a long slender tail and often the bird disappears as quickly as it arrived.

Heiconias are also related to bananas and gingers. In this regard, the large and very long leaves of these plants serve as a nice diurnal roost for tent making bats. Whenever a sharp-eyed naturalst guide sees a banana, ginger or heliconia leaf, cut at the vein and folded over...it is the indicator that possibly a small group of tent bats are in residence. They are gorgeous little bats and upon looking under the leaf, there may be three or four little faces staring back at you. A very special treat, indeed, for lucky observers.

One last note that may be worth mentioning is the presence of a predator that occasionally can be found on or near heliconia flowers in Costa Rica. That is the venomous eye-lash viper. Eye-lash vipers are a small arboreal pit-viper that exhibits great diversity in coloration. Most of somewhat greenish with red spots but one color morph is brilliant yellow. These little pit-vipers hang out at the heliconia and ginger flowers as they catch prey, like hummingbirds, coming to the flowers. In fact, eye-lash vipers can often be found during our Costa Rica tours on excursions at the Arenal Hanging Bridges. There are wonderful photographs of a yellow eye-lash viper in action striking at a hummingbird. Yet another reminder of the wonderful adaptations exhibited in nature.

Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history. Greg's photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.