When the world’s foremost expert on Heliconias, the late Mr. Fred Berry, visited Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden he marveled at the size of our Heliconia mariae and wondered aloud how Garden Founder Dan Lutkenhouse could possibly have gotten them to grow so large. Mr. Berry had traveled the world collecting and naming Heliconias and had never seen such grand specimens. He was co-author of the first book on the genus, Heliconia an Identification Guide, which includes many photos taken of specimens in the Garden.
Mr. Berry’s remarks are a testament to the magic of Onomea. Few places on earth can rival the growing conditions found here. The valley’s constant warmth, high humidity, 160“ of annual rainfall and rich volcanic soil lend an exuberance and vigor to these plants they seldom achieve, even in their native habitats.
From the inception of the Garden, Dan Lutkenhouse began collecting and displaying Heliconias. Today the Garden’s collection includes over 200 varieties of rare and wild collected specimens, and has gained International notoriety among botanists and taxonomists as one of the finest and most extensive collections of Heliconias on public display anywhere.
Heliconias are conspicuous for their inflorescences made up of bracts, modified leaves which come in a vast array of bold colors, shapes, and sizes, and can contain as many as 50 of the tiny true flowers inside. Each Heliconia shoot will produce one inflorescence with multiple bracts that are arranged in one even plane (distichous) or spirally arranged due to the twisting of the rachis. Inflorescences are either erect or pendant. After flowering a shoot will wither and die.
Heliconias are mostly native to Tropical America along with a handful of species from the Pacific Islands. An easy way to recognize a Pacific Species is by the lack of color on their bracts. They are a dull green in color resulting from the fact that its pollinators are night feeding bats that use certain chemical cues and odors rather than sight to locate food sources. Their more numerous American cousins are pollinated by hummingbirds drawn in by the colorful bracts. In Hawaii, earwigs replace the hummingbirds and bats as pollinators.
Heliconias have banana-like leaves and were formerly classified with the banana family but are now classified as their own family, Heliconiaceae. The family name Heliconiaceae and its single genus Heliconia are a reference to Mt. Helicon in Greece, home of the Muses, because of their similarity to the banana family, Musaceae, which refers to the Muses.
During the Summer months, our Heliconia collection is in full bloom. Some highlights include the rare Heliconia longissima. Standing at the Head of the Heliconia Trail, visitors are dwarfed by its inflorescences dangling over 10’ long containing as many as 50 bracts and foliage towering 20’ feet above.
Located by the Founders’ Birdhouse, the aptly named Heliconia regalis cultivar “Barnum and Bailey” produces hairy, bright orange and yellow bracts that could really be “The Greatest Show on Earth” to the Heliconia enthusiast. If only these bracts kept and traveled well, they would surely have taken the cut-flower industry by storm.
Another rare specimen is Heliconia reptans which displays its inflorescence on the ground like a snake, can be seen across from Fern Circle.