It is truly a blessing to live in Hawaii, where folks actually complain about having too many banana plants producing more fruit than they can consume.
Coming back from West Africa and seeing how tough life is for most folks, our abundance of food makes me realize how great it is to be home.
Summer is the best time for banana production on the Big Island. It is also the best time for flower production of its relatives, the heliconia, bird of paradise and traveler’s tree. Warm temperatures and abundant moisture are ideal for this family. These plants are ideal for tropical lowland landscapes, but some grow to an elevation of 3,000 feet and more in Hawaii. All require a good soil with moisture and some wind protection. The banana may be included in every garden as a good source of nutritional fruit. Many varieties are available through local nurseries, but be careful about getting starts or keiki from old fields and gardens. These are sometimes infected with disease organisms that cause Bunchy Top and Panama Wilt just to name a few. Nurseries are careful to make sure their plants are free from pests.
For a striking flower, as well as leaves, it’s hard to beat some other members of the family Musaceae. The traveler’s tree, or Ravenala, from Madagascar is ideal for a large garden, but let’s concentrate on a few of these exotics that thrive in limited spaces. One of these belongs to the group called Heliconias. They are sometimes called false bird of paradise or wild plantain. They include some of the most striking inflorescent plants in the world.
Flowers are often concealed by leaves, which are somewhat like those of the banana. Broadly bladed, their basal stems form the main stalk. There are many varieties growing from 2 feet in height to 12 or 15 feet. The small psitticorum types are ideal for mini gardens.
As garden materials, the large heliconias require room, and where space is available, they make a good filler or screen for tropical effects. The soil should be loose but water holding since they need moisture. Heliconias also must be protected from wind to save their large leaves from damage and have light shade. They are propagated from suckers or root divisions.
Some heliconias are called “lobster-claws” because the colorful keels of the flower stalk in which the flowers hide are incurved slightly at the end like the claw of a lobster.
For example, Heliconia humilis, with the flowering stalk about 3 feet tall, is made up of bright lobster-red keels or bracts edged with dark green. The leaves of this variety are 6 to 8 feet in height. It is best used as a filler plant. The bloom comes on in early summer.
Then, there is Heliconia elongata, similar to the above, but the keels are pinkish, deeply edged with yellow and green. This one blooms in early spring, and grows to about 8 feet.
Heliconia aureo-striata has leaves that are striped with yellow midribs and veins. Heliconia illustris is like the Heliconia aureo-striata but has pinkish coloring on the leaves in addition to the yellow and green.
The dwarf types such as heliconia psittacorum grow less than 3 feet tall. These make good pot specimens and tolerate full sun.
Several named varieties are also available of the dwarf types.
Many species have dramatic inflorescence that droop in a brilliant swaying “fall” from the top of the flower stalk. These are called the “hanging” heliconias. Heliconia chartacea, or “Sexy Pink,” has brilliant, pinkish-red keels which are narrow but long, and widely spaced.
A common but spectacular species is Heliconia rostrata with yellow and red keels. The real flowers within the keels are large enough to be seen. They are bright yellow. The leaves of the plant grow to 12 feet, and the flower head could hang down to eye level. It can be seen to some extent among the leaves, but is more spectacular as a cut specimen. It blooms in late summer.
Another hanging form is Heliconia platystachys. The keels of this one are red, edged with green and yellow. This blooms in the autumn.
Heliconias have very few problems. Give them plenty of fertilizer and water. In return, you’ll have abundant flowers.
If you want to try the birds of paradise or the Strelitzia species, from Africa, you will find them more tolerant of wind, water, stress and even salinity. There are two common species which are the orange and blue flowered Strelitzia reginae and Strelitzia nicolai, tree bird of paradise. The tree type can reach 15 feet and has blue and white flowers. Give them plenty of sun, and they will thrive on a minimum of care.
Several South Kohala hotels have used the large species in windy locations near the ocean where the plants perform well. Birds of paradise will actually take some frost and may be grown up to 6,000 feet in elevation.
Two species of banana, Musa bajoo and Musa sikkimensis, are very cold tolerant and can be grown as far north as Seattle and Vancouver Island in Canada. In Hawaii, they would probably tolerate temperatures at elevations of 5,000 feet or higher. These are more for effect, however, since the fruits are not palatable.
This information is supplied by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. For further information, contact the office near you. The website is www.ctahr.hawaii.edu.