Growing Heliconias from Seed  Ripe fruits of Heliconia magnifica

(Part of this article was first published on the March 2005 issue of the Heliconia Society of Puerto Rico Bulletin)

Growing heliconias from seed is a truly enjoyable experience. Seeds provide an inexpensive means of producing more plants without having to sacrifice clumps or dig rhizomes, and also increases the chance of producing a new cultivar or maybe a hybrid! Plants grown from seed usually take longer to flower than those planted from rhizomes or clump divisions, but for those who are always on the lookout for something new, it's worth a try. Few heliconia hybrids have been found in nature, and there aren't any man-made hybrids as in the world of orchids, roses and other commercially grown flower plants. Some countries, like Australia, ban the import of live plants and rhizomes, and collectors rely on seeds to plant  heliconias and other plant species. Import of clean seeds usually doesn't require a phytosanitary certificate.

Mostly native to the American tropics, heliconias are pollinated by hummingbirds. Puerto Rico has nine different species of hummingbirds, two of them endemic. They are the main pollinators of our native yellow Heliconia caribaea, and of all the other heliconias that have been introduced to the island with time. These tiny birds with iridescent plumage are commonly seen not only around heliconias, but also on the flowers of ornamental gingers like the Red and Pink Torch (Etlingera elatior). Fig. 1 shows a hummingbird on a flower of Heliconia bihai Lobster Claw I (photo by Dr. Antonio Iņigo, from Mayaguez, PR). Bees sometimes stop in heliconia flowers for nectar, like this one seen in a Heliconia chartacea Columbine (Fig. 2).

Hummingbird on H. bihai (photo by Dr. Tony Iņigo)

Bees on Temptress flower

Fig 1

Fig 2

When pollinated, heliconias produce a fruit, called a drupe. It's generally bright blue or blue-violet in color. When this fleshy blue cover is removed, there will be from one to three very hard, black seeds (Fig. 3). These seeds vary in size and shape among the different heliconia species (Fig. 4).  Some can be as large and round as a pea (H. aemygdiana), while others can be long and thin as a grain of rice (H. rostrata).

Seeds of Heliconia magnifica

Seeds of different heliconias

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Some seeds have an aggressive start, while others seem to take forever to sprout. Heliconia platystachys (Fig. 5, with fruit), H. imbricata and H. collinsiana (Fig 6, with unripe fruit), all with very large round seeds, sprout quickly and it's not uncommon to find seedlings of these heliconias growing close to the mother clumps. Heliconia marginata Lutea, with large but elongated seeds (Fig. 7, with ripe fruit) also tends to germinate quickly, as do the tiny seeds of H. mariae (a very robust plant). H. chartacea (Fig. 8), on the contrary, with large rectangular seeds, can take up to a year to emerge!

Heliconia platystachys with ripe fruit

Helic. collinsiana with unripe fruit

Heliconia marginata Lutea with ripe fruit

Ripe fruits on Heliconia chartacea

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

It's easy to plant heliconia seeds. The fleshy blue pulp is easily removed by soaking them in water overnight. The exposed seeds are then scrubbed well every time the water is changed. (Water should be changed daily to avoid foul smells and the accumulation of mosquito larvae). When completely cleaned - this process could take two or three days - the seeds are then planted in pots or trays with a good germinating mix. These are placed in a partially sunny spot and watered regularly. To avoid rodents, who often enjoy these seeds, trays can be covered with secure lids made out of metal mesh, like the kind used for small bird cages (Fig. 9).

 Wire mesh covering the trays

Seedlings of Helic. imbricata and H. penduloides

Fig. 9

Fig. 10

After a while, seeds will sprout, a little thin green blade emerging. Leaves will form (Fig. 10), and the tiny heliconia seedling can be transplanted to a larger pot when it's around 3 inches tall. A little slow-release fertilizer (we suggest Osmocote 14-14-14) can be added to the pot mix to ensure good root growth.

Seedlings in a given batch will all be very similar in size, but there might be a slight difference in stem or leaf color, absence or presence of powdery wax on the stems and underside of the leaves, dark or light color on the midribs of the leaves, etc., on a single little plant. These are important things to look for. That plant should be separated, planted apart and tagged. These variations are worth the effort: this is the way that new cultivars and hybrids are born!

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