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Taste of the Tropics Under Glass

This article was first published on 03 Sep 2020.

Heliconia spissa

Heliconia spissa

Photo by the Otago Daily Times

Heliconia have one of those iconic flowers that come to mind when we think of the tropics. They’re long lasting, the various forms are used extensively in tropical flower arrangements and are an integral part of tropical garden design.

At Dunedin Botanic Garden Heliconia spissa is adding a bright splash of colour to the east wing of the winter garden glasshouse as the flowers begin to open.

But what we think of as the flowers are actually brightly coloured modified leaves called bracts. They hide the real flower inside which is a lot less showy than the bracts.

Foliage is similar to bananas with long leaves up to 3 metres in some species. The stem stays slender and doesn’t form the thick trunk banana does.

Heliconia spissa is medium sized, growing 1.5 to 2 metres high. It can tolerate full sun or light shade, stands the wind a lot better than other Heliconias and will thrive outside in the northern parts of New Zealand. Here in Dunedin you are going to need a heated glass house or conservatory. Heliconia spissa comes from southern Mexico and also from tropical central America, where many other species of Heliconia are from; only a handful will grow outside in the warmest parts of New Zealand.

Because of their height Heliconia are generally used as a back drop for smaller strongly coloured plants such as bromeliads or impatiens but their bracts retain colour for a long time making them ideal as cut flowers.

Garden Life is produced by Dunedin Botanic Garden. For further information contact Stephen Bishop.