Hanging Lobster Claw

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Hanging Lobster Claws, Heliconia restrata  (Possibly an ‘Orange’ cultivar) 

Family:  Heliconiaceae

Also known as:  Wild Plantain, False Bird-of-Paradise or Parrot’s Beak

(First, a fast botanical nugget I share with those who tour Ola Brisa Gardens.  This being that the 100 to 250 species of Heliconia, five types of Bird of Paradise, wide array of Bananas variants  and the Traveler’s Palm are all rather closely related – as we say in the Midwest – “kissin’ cousins”!)

As to those of the – beautiful and quite pretty – Heliconia family, most are from tropical America, with a few coming from various islands of the southwestern Pacific.   Botanically speaking, Heliconias are medium to large, erect herbs often with substantive rhizomatous growth whose leaves are oppositely arranged on the stem in a, more or less, two dimensional plane.  Each leaf is comprised of a petiole (stalk) and blade appearing to look quite similar to a banana leaf but, sometimes, in a more upright posture.

A particular favorite of many who love tropical flowers, are the large blossomed species such as the spiral, pendent, Heliconia rostrata.   They are one of the more commonly cultivated with strikingly attractive hanging, rather than erect, inflorescences.  (Ana – our housekeeper and “she who really rules the roost – regularly incorporates these long lasting cut flowers into the beautiful inside floral displays she creates from our gardens.) 

Our hanging Lobster Claw Heliconia are, always, “Wow!” inspiring by visitors previously not familiar with them.   However, I’m unable to say, with absolute assuredness, what exact species (or cultivar) ours is, in that in among the two hundred pictured plants in the, rather outstanding publication, Heliconia, An Identification Guide by Fred Berry and W. John Kress, none look quite like those we have!

However, I’ve come to suspect that our specimen might be an ‘Orange’ cultivar (hence such identification above).  This presumption comes as a result of a picture in Bryan Brunner’s bi-lingual, somewhat scholarly tome, Tropical Flower Cultivation: The Heliconias.  It really looks like ours and the description he outlines seems spot on.  It reads as follows:  “The inflorescence is pendent and slightly spiral, with 17 to 20 bracts.  The second bract is 1.3 inches 3.4 cm) wide and 3.7 inches (9.4 cm) long.  Bracts are orange-red, becoming orange basally, with a wide yellow lip and covered with short pubescence.” 

Accordingly, further research reveals that this particular species comes from the western Amazon, southwest Columbia through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and eastern Brazil.  It grows in the altitude range of 360 to 4,590 feet (11O – 1,400 meters). 

Brunner adds to this that “Southern populations tend to have more pubescent inflorescences with narrower bracts with greenish lips, while northern populations are characterized by a glabrous rachis and bracts, with wider bracts and mostly yellow lips.”

An erect, clump forming herb, this Heliconia grows to about 16 ½ feet (five meters) in height.  The leaves are glossy green and oval or paddle shaped.  They grow to 24-48 inches (60-120 cm) long on a petiole of about one half that length.   These are perennials that will arise anew every year from the rhizomes.  Once the plant has flowered, cut it back to about a foot (30 cm) or so.  New growth should be readily apparent shortly thereafter.

The only significant pests or problems of consequence for Heliconia are grasshoppers, scale and mealybugs.  They are immune to most plant diseases, but sustained “wet feet” from placement in soil that does not drain well can rot the root system.

Those wonderfully, pendulant flowers bloom continuously throughout the year.  In his book, Tropical Ornamentals, W. Arthur Whistler describes them this way, “borne within 10-35, sometimes as few as 4, thick, folded, ovate, distichous, fuzzy bracts 6-15 cm long (2 ½ -6 in) with broad yellow and green margins and tip, on a pendulous inflorescence 30-60 cm long (12-24 in) on a shorter rachis.”

Often grown as a border fence or hedge, these beauties prefer fertile, moist well-draining soil in sunny or partially shaded areas.   Heavy mulching is recommended in order to protect the soil from drying out as well as enhancing the soil’s organic matter. Ours are with an array of other, mostly erect flowered heliconia, some Ginger and a couple of banana trees thriving on two sides of our infinity pool.

Heliconia can have a one to three seeded drupe (seed/fruit), but seldom does so in cultivation. The flower pollination is often the result of visiting hummingbirds or nectar feeding bats.

If you’ve inclination, space and a desire for exotica – think Heliconia!

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Every so often, Ana incorporates these beauties into the cut tropical floral arrangements she places around Casa Ola Brisa.

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The leaves of the Hanging Lobster Claw Heliconia look, very much, like those of the banana!

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One has to admit, these do attract attention!