Whereas the preceding genus took us to the cold mountain heights, we now descend again to sea level or slightly above it, to the tropical rainforests and steaming swamps — the home of magnificent plants which have only recently begun to find their way into cultivation as house plants.
At first glance most species of Heliconia resemble a several-storeyed Strelitzia. The resemblance is not a chance one, for the two genera are closely related. Strelitzia, however, consists of only five South African species, whereas Heliconia is a genus of tropical America embracing some 150 species.
Botanical gardens generally contain other species than the one from Costa Rica. The one mainly found there is Heliconia bihai, distributed from Mexico to southern Brazil, which reaches a height of 6 m (20 ft) in the wild (in cultivation, barely half that as a rule). The flower spikes are about 60 cm (2 ft) high; the bracts bright scarlet tipped with yellow, theyellow. Noted for its beautiful coloration is the species H. metatlica, about 2 m (6 ft) high. The leaves have red stalks and are coloured violet-purple on the underside and glossy, velvety green above. The flower stem is red, the bracts green, the flowers green-red. Readers will surely agree that the ** illustration and descriptions suffice to support the statement that these are not only exotic but also spectacular plants that merit the attention of growers. Not all species, however, are nearly so robust and vigorous. For example, in the mountains round Machu Picchu in Peru the author once collected H. affinis, a plant barely 1.5 m (5 ft) high, with a full half of that taken up by the bright yellow-pink-orange-red flower spikes. Cross-breeding, particularly of the miniature species, offers interesting and far-reaching prospects.
Heliconias should be grown in a peaty compost enriched with loam at a permanently high temperature and with high humidity, in other words in a glasshouse, large plant-case or paludarium.