Tropical Gardening: Hawaii gardens ideal for bold tropicals

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE The orange bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) from South Africa will tolerate wind, cold and dry conditions better than most plants in the banana family. The blue and white flowered tree bird of paradise is also quite hardy but gets much taller, up to 15 feet.

Most native Hawaiian plants are not noted for their bold tropical effects. Exceptions are our Hawaiian Cibotium tree ferns, Pritchardia palms, Gunneras, Pandanus, Freycinetia and a few others.

Many true natives such as silverswords and the lobeliads are hard to come by and have very specific requirements.


What we commonly think of as bold and hardy are the canoe plants brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians, such as the coconut palm, banana and kalo, ti and breadfruit. Many other bold tropicals from around the world were later introduced as landscape plants.

For a bold tropical effect in the garden, consider the banana and its relatives the Heliconia, bird of paradise and traveler’s tree.

Hawaii is blessed with a unique climate. It is tropical, yet cooled by the trade winds. Where trade winds are strong, bananas and Heliconias need protection. All require a good soil with moisture and some wind protection.

The banana should be included in every garden as a good source of nutritional fruit. But for 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 too big for a small garden, so let’s concentrate on a few of these exotics that thrive in limited surroundings.

One of these belongs to the group called Heliconias. It is sometimes called false bird of paradise or wild plantain. It includes some of the most striking inflorescences in the world along with luxuriant foliage.

Flowers are often concealed by leaves that are somewhat like those of the banana, broadly bladed, their basal stems forming the main stalk. There are many varieties growing from a few feet in height to 12 or 15 feet.

As garden material, Heliconias require some room, but where this is available they make a good filler for tropical effects. The soil should be loose but water-holding since they need moisture. They are propagated from suckers or clump divisions.

They are often called “lobster claws” because the colorful keels of the flower stalk in which the flowers hide are in-curved slightly at the end like the claw of a lobster.

Heliconia humilis, the flowering stalk, which is about 2 or 3 feet tall, is made up of bright boiled-lobster-red bracts (or keels) edged with dark green. The leaves of this variety are 6-8 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.

The golden Heliconia (H. latispatha) has golden-orange keels that are more slender and widely spaced on the flowering stalk. While the leaves grow to 7 or 8 feet, the flower stalk of this one is even taller, rising above these leaves that make it more conspicuous. This one blooms in the summer.

The red-leafed Heliconia (Heliconia metallica) is primarily a foliage plant, with large, graceful, falling leaves about 8 feet tall. They are a metallic purplish-red below. The keels are reddish, slender and not conspicuous, but make good cut flowers.

Heliconia aureo-striata has leaves that are striped with yellow midribs and veins. Heliconia illustris is like Heliconia aureo-striata but has pinkish coloring on the leaves in addition to the yellow and green.

Heliconia have very few problems. Give them plenty of fertilizer and water. In return, you’ll have abundant flowers.


If you want to try the bird of paradise, or Strelitzia, from Africa, you will find them more tolerant of wind and water stress. There are two common species. The orange and blue flowered Strelitzia reginae grows to 2-5 feet.

Strelitzia nicolai can reach 15 feet and has blue and white flowers. Strelitzia will tolerate some frost and yet grow in drier, salty areas along the coast. Give them plenty of sun and they will thrive on a minimum of care. Some of the best specimens can be seen in the Waimea area.

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