Banana relatives ideal as bold tropicals


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.

Many banana varieties are available through area 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 or Panama wilt. 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. A few of these exotics thrive in limited spaces. One of these belongs to the heliconia group. 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. Varieties grow from 2 feet to 15 feet high. 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. Heliconias 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 curved 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 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.

The keels of Heliconia elongata 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 H. 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 may 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 genus, from Africa, you will find them more tolerant of wind, water, stress and even salinity. The common species are the orange and blue flowered Strelitzia reginae and Strelitzia nicolai, tree bird of paradise. The tree type may reach 15 feet and has blue and white flowers. Give them plenty of sun, and they will thrive with minimal 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 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 tolerate temperatures at elevations of 5,000 feet or more. 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 more information, contact the office near you or visit ctahr.hawaii.edu.