Heliconias in Heaven

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (HTBG), a 40-acre, former estate garden near Hilo, occupies a rainforest canyon. The first plant that blew me away was this bromeliad near the visitor center.

This was the next. And my companions and I had yet to descend into the garden!

As we did so, palms and tree ferns towered overhead, creating sunlit layers of green. Next to the trail grew ferns as dainty as feathers, and glossy ginger flowers that resembled red roses.

Leaves of ti plants were variegated red-and-green…

and were breathtaking when backlit by the sun.

Beneath them grew conical orange temple flowers (Clerodendrum paniculatum).

The HTBG boasts over 200 varieties of rare and wild collected specimens of heliconias, garden manager Sean Callahan said as he pointed out one spectacular species after another—including an unusual hairy one.

“What appears to be flowers are actually bracts that can contain as many as 50 tiny flowers,” Sean told us, adding that heliconias native to the Americas are colorful in order to attract hummingbirds; those native to the islands are pollinated by bats instead and are a dull green.

Bracts of this heliconia grow as long as I am tall.

Speaking of bats, this is arguably the most unusual flower we saw: a bat plant (Tacca chantrieri).

Also airy were cat’s whisker flowers.

Not surprisingly, Zingiber spectabile is commonly called honeycomb ginger.

Given 100+ inches of warm rainfall a year, these leaves get as big as tablecloths.

In a glade of palms as tall as redwoods, we fell silent as we gazed upward. Sean looked not at the trees but at us. It struck me that the reward of gardener-artists is not—as people assume—hours of serene contemplation, but rather seeing the results of their hard work through others’ eyes.

After discovering that I’m skeeter candy, I deflected them with a parea (shawl). Btw, the HTBG gift shop sells inexpensive repellent towelettes, a good idea wherever there are heliconias on earth.


Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin

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elaine rickett August 20, 2011, 4:59 am

What wonderful specimens – unfortunately the British climate wouldn’t allow growing them in the garden, we can but dream!

And Hawaiians can’t have English flower gardens, at least not without a ton of work. Btw, I visited the home of a master gardener who said a beetle strips the leaves of rose bushes before they even get started, which is just as well, because amendments such as chicken manure are prohibitively expensive on an island in the middle of the Pacific. — Debra

Linda August 20, 2011, 8:49 am

Beautiful pictures. As a gardener, I to like see how others perceive my efforts. If they enjoy it as much as I did designing and planting it.

Thanks, Linda. I do, too, although like most gardeners, I find myself apologizing for mine! — Debra

Dixie August 21, 2011, 1:20 am

I’m not mad about tropical gardens (I’m much more a succulents and cacti person) but that place is beautiful! It looks so peaceful and magical. Certain parts actually remind me quite a bit of the Durban Botanic Gardens here in SA, which also has many tropical plants.

Hi, Dixie — Me, too, when it comes to preferring cacti and succulents—which is why going to Hilo was a true vacation for me. So often I turn pleasure trips into business, when I get wind of a great succulent garden or nursery—not a bad thing, but I figured this time I wouldn’t be tempted. The garden was indeed magical, and it helped give me perspective on the plants that I live and breathe daily, here in Southern CA. –Debra

Melody August 21, 2011, 11:27 pm

Beautiful photos 🙂 What a great place to visit!

BTW, what ever happened to the “picture this” contests? I’m missing them.

Hi, Melody — Thanks! Picture This is on hiatus, and will return. Stay tuned! — Debra

Organic Guy - Jonathan August 22, 2011, 12:40 pm

Wow! I’ve gotta have these plants in my garden…

Let us know if you have success with them. Most are pretty challenging to grow outside of a tropical rainforest! — Debra

Andrea August 23, 2011, 8:15 pm

Hello, very lovely photos. Unlike others i am not really that impressed with those plants because they are all present here in our country being also tropical. In fact, the Heliconias become a forest if not attended well. What I really appreciate is the devotion of the government to create big gardens like that for visitors, which we lack in magnitude in this country.

Hi, Andrea — Interesting perspective. How narrow I just realized mine is, as an American who takes botanical gardens for granted, and whose experience with tropical plants—apart from those that thrive in well-watered Southern CA gardens—is pretty much limited to Florida and Hawaii. [Everyone: Andrea lives in the Phillipines. One of her recent blog posts shows butterflies, and includes one that’s gorgeous on both sides (underside and top), which are completely different.] — Debra

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