Heliconia rostrata Ruiz & Pav. (Heliconiaceae)


Hanging lobster claw

Heliconia rostrata inflorescence in Oxford Botanic Garden. Type of Heliconia rostrata collected by the Spanish plant collectors Ruiz and Pavon in Peru in the late eighteenth century (Oxford University Herbaria).

The genus Heliconia commemorates Mount Helicon in Greece, home of the mythical Muses, and reflects its similarity to the banana genus Musa; like bananas, heliconias are giant herbs. The number of species in Heliconia ranges from 80 to 250, depending on the authority, but it is agreed that heliconias come mainly from tropical America, with six species found in the Pacific region. Within the genus the species are grouped according to their habit: banana-like (musoid), ginger-like (zingiberoid) or canna-like (cannoid)


Heliconia rostrata is distributed from Peru to Argentina and was introduced to Europe in the late eighteenth century. Heliconia rostrata belongs to the musoid group, bearing a close resemblance to musas, with their upright, spirally arranged, paddle-shaped leaves, with long petioles, that can be up to 120 cm long. Having such large leaves means they are liable to be damaged by wind, consequently, when grown outside they are best put in a sheltered spot. Inflorescence stems may reach 2 m high but are much slimmer than those of musas. The pendent inflorescences are up to 60 cm long, with stunning colours that are no doubt one of the main reasons for their popularity in the garden. The waxy bracts that cup the barely noticeable, yellowish-green, flowers are red with yellow tips, edged with green. In the Americas, heliconias are pollinated by humming birds.

Heliconias are clump-forming, herbaceous perennials, spreading by rhizomes that, in the glasshouse, need to be kept in check as they have a tendency to 'walk' from their original position. Propagation is easy, being by division of the rhizomes. As it dies, the flowering stem is cut back to encourage the growth of new suckers.

In the Oxford Botanic Garden, where Heliconia rostrata is grown in the Palm House, adding to the overall rainforest effect, we find red spider mite is the main problem especially during the summer months, although towards the end of the summer thrips start to become an issue. To flower well, heliconias need good light, regular feeding and a moist environment. Heliconia rostrata is more tolerant of cooler temperatures than other species and can be grown at temperatures as low as 15° C. Heliconia stricta 'Ali' is also grown in the Oxford glasshouses, but it reaches only about 50 cm in height and has upright inflorescences with bright red bracts edged with green. The inflorescences of both species make excellent, exotic, long-lasting cut flowers.

Further reading

Beckett KA 1987. The Royal Horticultural Society encyclopaedia of houseplants. Century Hutchinson Limited.

Huxley A 1999. The new Royal Horticultural Society dictionary of gardening. Groves Dictionaries Inc.

Llamas KA 2003. Tropical flowering plants. A guide to identification and cultivation. Timber Press.

Lucinda Lachelin