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The Handsome Heliconia

Walking on almost any trail in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, you are likely to pass heliconias. Their large, paddle-shaped leaves resemble banana leaves, giving them one of their common names, platanilla, which means little plantain in Spanish. Heliconia tends to grow in clusters, often in light gaps in the forest and along the banks of streams. The bright red “flowers” are in fact not flowers but specialized leaves, called bracts. “Lobster claw,” one of the English common names for heliconia, derives from the color and shape of these bracts.

At the base of the bracts, yellow flowers produce sweet nectar, and hummingbirds attracted by the intense color of the bracts can reach the nectar with their long, slender bills. As they follow established routes or “traplines,” hummingbirds fly from flower to flower and carry pollen on their foreheads.

The small, fleshy fruits sit nestled in the red bracts, until small birds pluck them and eat them, spreading seeds through the forest.

Showy heliconia plants can be found in botanical gardens around the world. However, the ecological relationships of pollination, herbivory, and seed dispersal that connect heliconias with the rest of the forest cannot be found in captivity. In the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, beauty and biodiversity sprout from the same seed.

Originally published in 2016

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