In South America, flowering plants from the genus Heliconia are commonly known as lobster’s claw or toucan’s beak. In other parts of the world, they are better known as false bird-of-paradise, because of their resemblance to bird-of-paradise flowers from the genus Strelitzia.
Of the almost two hundred species of Heliconia estimated by some scientists to exist, most are native to the Americas and are found in the continent’s tropical forests, while just six known species are native to islands of the western Pacific region.
Across their different species, plants of the Heliconia genus can range in size from around half a meter (20 inches) to 4.5 meters (15 feet) in height, and their leaves can grow to between 15 centimeters (6 inches) and 3 meters (6 feet) in length. The flowers of plants from the Heliconia genus, which in strictly biological terms are actually modified leaves, or bracts, grow in many-branched groups, known to botanists as panicles.
The name of the genus Heliconia is derived from the Greek, recalling Mount Helicon, in central Greece, which according to ancient mythology was the home of the Muses, the goddesses who in western culture personify the arts and sciences. This name also acknowledges the Heliconia genus’s similarities to the genus Musa, which includes plantains and bananas and is composed of around seventy species.
One of the most striking plants which visitors to Tambopata National Reserve are likely to see during their exploration of rainforest trails is Heliconia rostrata, better known to local people by its perfectly apt common name “pico de loro” (“parrot’s beak”), and notable for its unusual downward facing flowers.
In form, the inflorescences of this beautiful plant certainly resemble the beaks of the parrots seen frequently in this part of the Amazon basin. And at the same time their bright colors, dominated by a livid red main body ending in a primary yellow and greenish tip, recall the brilliant plumage of birds such as the scarlet macaw.
The floral shape of certain members of the Heliconia genus, including Heliconia rostrata, means that pollination can only be achieved by attracting hummingbirds. To this end, Heliconia flowers produce considerable quantities of nectar, the high energy food so essential to hummingbirds, which need to consume up to three times their bodyweight in a single day, just to be able to continue patrolling the individual territories across which they forage. Butterflies are also known to feed on the sweet nectar produced by Heliconia.
Across the rainforests of the Amazon basin, in what would seem to be a strategy designed to enable them to compete for pollinators, different species of Heliconia flower at different times of the year.
In addition to hummingbirds, other tropical forest bird species also play a crucial part in the life cycle of Heliconia, by eating their ripe fruits and dispersing the seeds from which a new generation of plants will grow. Certain species of mammal also feed on Heliconia fruits and contribute in this way to seed dispersion.
Unsurprisingly, given their great beauty, many species of Heliconia are cultivated as ornamental plants. In Puerto Maldonado, a growers’ association dominated by women has achieved success in the cultivation of Heliconia and other flowering rainforest plants, employing sustainable methods to benefit the lives of local people.