Family : Heliconiaceae
Text © Pietro Puccio
English translation by Mario Beltramini
The species is native to Brazil (Acre, Amazonas, Amapá, Pará, Roraima, Rondônia and Tocantins), Colombia, Dominican Republic, French Guyana, Guyana, Haiti, Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela and Windward Islands, where it lives in the humid forests up to about 1200 m of altitude.
The name of the genus comes from the Latin “Heliconius, a, um” = of the Helicon, mountain sacred to Apollo and the Muses in the Greek mythology; the name of the species comes from the local Taíno language “bihao”.
Common names: false plantain, firebird, macaw-flower, red palulu, wild plantain (English); balisier, queue de poisson (French); bananeira silvestre, caetê-vermelho, pacova-branca, pássaro-de-fogo, tracoá (Portuguese-Brazil); bijao, platanera silvestre, platanillo (Spanish).
The Heliconia bihai (L.) L. (1771) is a perennial rhizomatous erect herbaceous species, evergreen, forming dense 2-4 m tall tufts. The leaves are basal, alternate, simple, entire, ovate-lanceolate with pointed apex and central nervation prominent below, of intense green colour, 1-2,5 m long and 25-40 cm broad, and sheathing tubular foliar bases which form a 0,5-1,5 m long pseudo-stem. The inflorescence, on robust peduncle, is an erect terminal 30-60 cm long spike formed by 5-12 bracts having pointed apex and facing upwards, alternate, distichous, coriaceous, of bright red colour with greenish yellow margin, 10-18 cm long, decreasing from the bottom upwards, which enclose several tiny tubular hermaphroditic flowers, white at the base, pale green at the apex, opening in succession. The bracts form a cavity where collects the water which attracts birds and insects; the flowers are pollinated by the hummingbirds. The fruits are ovoid bright blue drupes containing 1-3 greyish seeds. It reproduces by seed, previously kept in water for 2 days, in organic loam with addition of siliceous sand or agri-perlite for a 30%, kept humid at the temperature of 26-28 °C, with germination times varying from 1 to 6 months, but usually and easily by division of the rhizomes; of vigorous growth, in some areas where it has been introduced for ornamental purpose, it has naturalized becoming, in some instances, a pest.
The Heliconia bihai is the most diffused species in the wild and stands among the most cultivated of the genus, of huge ornamental and landscape value due to its luxuriant foliage and the showy inflorescences, of which have been selected numerous varieties with bracts having different shades of red, but also of yellow, orange and green, and hybrids such as the Heliconia caribaea.
Cultivable exclusively in the humid tropical and subtropical climate zones in full sun or partial shade on soils rich of organic substance, draining, acidic or neutral, kept almost constantly humid. Where the climate does not allow its permanence in open air during the winter months, it can be cultivated in capacious pots to be sheltered in wide and luminous greenhouses or winter gardens, using an organic loam particularly draining and aerated, with lowest temperatures not under the 16 °C, regular and abundant watering, allowing the substratum to partly dry up before giving water again, avoiding the stagnations, cause of easy rottenness, and fertilizations with balanced products. It is easily subject to attacks of mites and mealy bugs to be treated, in case of serious infestation, with specific products. The leaves are utilized as roof of rural houses and makeshift shelters and, frequently, to wrap foods for cooking. The long-lasting cut inflorescences feed a flourishing trade.
Synonyms: Musa bihai L. (1753); Heliconia nigrescens Jacq. (1797); Heliconia variegata Jacq. (1797); Heliconia distans Griggs (1903); Heliconia purpurea Griggs (1903); Heliconia rutila Griggs (1903); Bihai bihai (L.) Griggs (1904); Bihai distans (Griggs) Griggs (1904); Bihai purpurea (Griggs) Griggs (1904); Bihai rutila (Griggs) Griggs (1904); Heliconia aurea G.Rodr. (1954); Heliconia schaeferiana G.Rodr. (1954).
The photographic file of Giuseppe Mazza