Jan HintzeDividing Heliconia and gingers

Since we are getting to the end of the Wet season here in the tropics, the next few weeks is about the last chance for dividing up heliconias and ginger rhizomes. It really needs to be done when the weather is still warm, and the humidity is high.

Propagation of heliconias and ginger species is usually done by dividing up the underground rhizomes from which the leafy stems and flowers grow. Lots of plants are propagated this way, but tropical plants are a little bit different, in that they often don’t have storage tubers which are a method of helping the plant survive over winter or dry seasons. Most heliconias and some gingers are native to the true tropics, where they have plentiful water and good growing conditions, all the year through.

Some gingers however, such as Curcuma, do come from areas where there is a dry season, sometimes of several months duration. You will find that these die back, sometimes completely, sometimes partially, or at least stop growing, in that time, so they sometimes have small storage tubers attached to the rhizome. These storage tubers do not have growth points on them, so it is no point in planting them, and expecting to get a new plant.

The piece of rhizome that you need to take is a section of the thick, sometimes woody, root which grows horizontally, just under the ground, from which the leaf stems grow up and the feeder roots grow down. This thick root, which is called a rhizome, can be divided into pieces, each of which needs to have a growth eye on it. With luck and a lot of TLC it is from this eye your new plant will grow.

Generally speaking, the larger the section of the root you take, the better your chances are for the new plant to grow up successfully. If possible, your piece should have several eyes, as insurance, and preferably, one of them at least should be starting to develop into a new shoot of leaves.

Roots on the new shoot are not necessary, because they usually get damaged in the digging process, and a damaged root doesn’t really serve any purpose, since it no longer is able to absorb water or nutrients. In fact you will find if you buy rhizomes from interstate or overseas (if quarantine rules permit), all the roots will be trimmed off. This is done to ensure that no soil adheres to the rhizome, which might carry pathogens, or insect pests.

After you have selected or received your rhizome, you should soak it in a weak solution of liquid fertiliser, since the skin of the rhizome can absorb water and dissolved fertiliser. This will ensure that the rhizome is fully hydrated when you plant it, and a bit if plant food will give it a boost. Plant your rhizome, with the old shoots and the eye pointing up, and the root stumps pointing down. I always prefer to start everything off in a pot, so you can keep it a bit protected, until there are signs of active growth, then when the weather is right, and the plant looks fit and healthy, it can be planted out in its spot, with a good dose of liquid fertiliser, mulch and a stake to hold it in place, while it organises its roots firmly in the ground. Don’t forget to label it, because it might be a year or two before it flowers for you, and you might need to know which is which.


Heliconia rhizome showing new shoot (left), mature stem (centre) & older stems (behind, right)

First photo is a Heliconia rhizome. The stem on the extreme left is a new shoot, about 50 cm tall, and has been left intact; the next stem is a mature stem, and its leaves have been trimmed off, to prevent dehydration through the old leaves and to force the new shoot to quickly produce. It also has an active eye at its base, pointing forwards. The stems behind are old flowered shoots, which could be trimmed off and planted separately, since they may have dormant eyes which will reactivate, or maybe not. If you are buying rhizomes, this piece is unreliable.


Rhizome of red torch ginger, Etlingera elatior

Second photo is a red torch ginger rhizome, Etlingera elatior. The left hand shoot here is also well advanced, but the mature shoot has two very strong shoots emerging, which, barring mechanical damage, are sure to emerge as strong new growth.

Third photo is the contents of a pot of Curcuma, which was going dormant (which they will do, whether you water them or not). Here you need to select the pieces which are firm and crisp. The old roots and stems on the lower left are all that remains of last year’s planting, the newer, creamy pieces are the bulbs formed this year for next year’s growth. The little round pea shaped bulblets are the starch storage for next year’s growth, and should be planted with the bulb – they will not shoot themselves. Now you can pack these in a paper bag in a cool place, or replant them in a pot, keeping them slightly damp until they shoot. If stored, check regularly, and when

Curcuma ready to go dormant – select pieces which are firm & crisp

new shoots are beginning to emerge, plant them out or in pots. Don’t store rhizomes in a plastic bag – they will sweat or go mouldy.Since we are getting to the end of the Wet season here in the tropics, the next few weeks is about the last chance for dividing up heliconias

Like this post? Why not share it with a friend?

Jan Hintze

About Jan Hintze

Jan is a professional flower grower, horticulturist & consultant, specialising in tropical plants including fruit and vegetable production and cut flowers. Darwin, Northern Territory

21 thoughts on “Dividing Heliconia and gingers

  1. I have just bought my first heleconium, Christmas red. I live in Sydney but we have no frost and want to plant it in a protected small courtyard. It has 3 blooms now, but when can I subdivide it into 2 pots?

    • Hi Nat – Jan Hintze has sent me this information for you…..
      Heliconia angusta,var. Christmas Red, or Red Holiday, is a cool growing relatively small heliconia which is ideally suited to pot culture, unlike most other Heliconias. I would suggest potting it on to a larger pot now, and keeping it intact until the growing season comes along with the warmer weather. Then, when new shoots appear, you can divide it in half, and repot with fresh soil and fertiliser. It should be kept in the warmest spot in the courtyard for the winter, and perhaps moved into a semi shaded position for the summer. Good luck with it, it is a lovely plant, and once settled, very reliable.

  2. You can grow some heliconias and some gingers in large containers such as 30 cm in diameter tubs. Both have species that are very large, but also some smaller ones, and these can be contained in a pot. Check the height and light requirements in a tropical gardening manual. They will need to be kept moist during the growing season, and a bit drier in the cool weather. Heliconias such as H. densiflorum (Fireflash), H. stricta (Jamaican Dwarf), R. rostrata, will all flower in a container. Gingers such as Curcuma, Globba, Zingiber officinale, will do quite well in a container, although they go dormant and die down in winter.
    If you harvest flowers of Heliconia, they should be cut off a few centimetres from the base and then trimmed for use. Each cane only flowers once. Many gingers flower on a separate stem from the foliage, others from the centre of the leaves. These too, can be cut off with the flower, or take only the flower, and leave the foliage for growth energy for the rhizome for next year’s flowers. Good luck.

  3. Do heliconias stop producing new shoots at some point? We have some near an outground pool and they have at least quadrupled in height and width in less than a year. They have taken off quicker than out bamboo and we will have to do something to stop the new shoots coming up in the pool if they just continue to grow and grow. We still have half a metre in between them an the pool, but we are concerned that this is quickly being taken up with new shoots since we planted them. We may have to put a root barrier in otherwise.

    • No, Heliconias keep on producing new shoots, since each shoot only lasts long enough to flower and die, just like a lot of members of the banana family. They do grow very quickly, and whilst this is a benefit in some circumstances, it may not be the right plant for your position. A root barrier will help contain the problem, but the shoots are very strong, and persistent. You will have to monitor the barrier, and cut off any shoots that make their way under or over it. Some Heliconias spread more than others, so if you ask your nurseryman for a clumping species, the problem is not so acute, but they all spread to some extent. The cooler weather will slow them down, but perhaps you might consider some other plant which is not so invasive. One consolation is that it is easier to control than bamboo. Good luck.

  4. Hi Mr. Jan,
    I have a small type heliconia. I bought this way back 2013. It grows very slowly. Until now it does not bear flowers. I have supplied various types of fertilizers including slow release complete fertilizer. Can you suggest which type of medium it will thrive well? I am from the Philippines.

    Thank you.

    • Hi, Beverly, I am a bit surprised your plant hasn’t flowers in five years. Heliconias generally flower within a couple of years of joining the garden. your problem obviously isn’t fertiliser, but perhaps it is not getting enough light. A lot of heliconias need full sun the flower properly, so I would suggest you put it in a position where it will get full sun in the morning, and a bit of shade in the afternoon, and hopefully that will speed things up. If you know the name of your plant, I can be a bit more definite, but this should cover most of them.
      Good Luck. Jan Hintze.

    • Hi Paul, Yes, you can use heliconia leaves for cooking or serving food, in just the same way as banana leaves – they are closely related in appearance. A reasonably new leaf is probably best, since it will be cleaner, not split and more flexible. Just be sure it has not been sprayed with chemicals or even fertilisers, and wash it to remove dust, dirt and bird droppings, bugs etc. Enjoy.

  5. Hi Jan, we have 18 acre property in cairns and are considering starting a heliconia / tropical flower farm. How do we source good rhizome stock and when should we plant? Any advice including ground preparation etc would be appreciated. Thanks Darryl and Sivan

    • Hi, Well this is a major undertaking. Ground preparation is much as for any other crop – ripping and rotary hoeing to dig in weeds, etc. and just before planting rotary hoe in your fertiliser, and dolomite. Remember that heliconia and gingers are not annual crops, so correct preparation is important for long term growth. Install your irrigation system before you plant, since the new plants need water daily until they are established, particularly if you are planting bare root rhizomes. Obtaining plant material is a bit more difficult. You should check the markets where you intend to sell, to select the right varieties to get the price you need, and meet the needs of the wholesalers. Try to arrange your marketing before you start. Some of the local growers may be prepared to sell you rhizomes – but you need to ask for the right varieties. You should plan on planting as soon as the rains start, and the ground temperature is starting to rise. October/November is good. Small heliconia (H psittacorum types) will be productive after two wet seasons, Larger claw and pendular can take 3 years. Gingers will depend on the genus, but will produce in 18 months to 3 years. Hope this helps – I am too far away to be able to be more specific.

  6. Hi, I am from Colombia (South America). we do not have seasons in our country, we have plenty of summer and winter as well. We have a small fields with heliconias, but the leaves are spotted and yellowish. We have used a complete fertiliser but they remain the same. This was used juts one week ago. We also used very complet fertiliser and good soil from the same field. do you have any suggestion?

    • Hola Beatriz, It sounds to me that you might have a magnesium deficiency, which is common in some varieties of Heliconia. We have calcium rich water here in Darwin, North Australia, and we find that during our dry season, watering with this produces small yellow speckles all over the leaves. It usually gets better when the rains come. I would recommend spreading some dolomite or magnesium sulphate which is water soluble and can be watered into the soil.
      If it is available to you, an analysis of the leaf and perhaps your soil would be useful to see if there are any other problems.

  7. Hi Jan,
    My father has just purchased a 7 acre property with many different varieties of Heliconias and Gingers from around the world. I was just wondering what books/websites you would recommend for them.

  8. Hi I’m in Singapore and have a very healthy heliconias patch in our garden. At this point I’d like to move a few of the new shoots to a planter box but am not sure how to separate them from the parent without damaging either one (and without having to dig up the whole plant). Can you give some tips please?

  9. Good day, Jan I am attempting to locate propagating information on Wild African Ginger [Siphonochilus aethiopicus] and your piece on Dividing Heliconia and Gingers is the best and most relevant information I have read to date.
    Would you have further thoughts on bulb quartering and suberization recommendations of bulbs?

    Many thanks for considering this request.
    Best regards,
    David Brown

    • Hi David.

      I am not sure how much help I can be. I know of Siphonochilus through friends who have visited Africa, but unfortunately it is too hot here for it. I am not sure what you mean by bulb. Most Zingiberales grow from rhizomes either underground or slightly on the surface. However, in Cucurma the rhizome is sort of compacted, with a growing point in the centre, and additional points on the lines in the surface of the ‘bulb’. They also often have smaller bulbs attached to the roots, which are storage places for supplying energy for the new growth after dormancy. These storage bulbs don’t have growing points. The rhizomatous bulb will produce a shoot from the centre, and later shoots from the side growing points. These shoots can be removed, when they develop roots, and will stimulate further shoots from the bulb. I hope these comments are relevant, and if you could send a pic. I may be able to suggest more. Cutting the “bulb” is risky, since the cut surface is subject to fungal and bacterial attack. A light dusting of yellow sulphur powder will help. Jan

  10. Thanks for the response Jan.
    Siphonochilus aethiopicus roots are indeed rhizomes but not in appearance at all like Zingiber officinale.
    I have found them described as follows:
    “The plants are characterized by a small cone-shaped rhizomes, which have a distinctive pungent smell (Viljoen et al., 2002) (Figure 1.2B). Up to twenty swollen tubers may be attached to the rhizome, each connected by succulent roots (van Wyk & Gericke, 2000). It is a forest floor plant with aromatic rhizomatous roots.”
    Page 9: http://etd.cput.ac.za/bitstream/handle/20.500.11838/2421/209199237-Xego-Sibusiso-Mtech-Horticulture-Appsc-2017.pdf?sequence=1

    A good picture of the roots [one of the only pictures I have found] can be seen on the following website [scroll down the page]: https://bigtreehealth.com/african-ginger/

    They may be more corm-like than bulb.
    I have very few of these virtually impossible to obtain plants and am attempting to get as much information as I can before jeopardizing one with the slice of a knife.
    Since there is limited to no information on specific root slicing propagation for this plant, any information on an analogous plant’s path to success is appreciated: best fungal treatment product/method, suberization product/method, rooting hormone, timing of division, etc.

    Again, many thanks,

    • Hi David, I am not sure how much more I can add. Just looking at the pic. they seem to be more like Curcuma, not the Turmeric types,(C. longa), but the C alismatifolia type which has a compacted rhizome type bulb/corm. I think the best thing you could do is plant your material in spring (I don’t know where you are) and when the plants come out of dormancy, gently dig one up, and see how and where the new shoots emerge. It should be possible to separate a shoot once it develops roots, and re-establish it. this should stimulate the old bulb to produce new shoots. however, I think your first move should be to establish some vigorous growing plants, before you start experimenting. Try to duplicate the natural environment with light and moisture as much as possible. Interesting to read the medical notes = a lot of gingers are used medically, one way or another. I wonder where they get their material from? cheers Jan H.

      I hope this helps him. Very nerve wracking to deal with rare and endangered plants.
      cheers . JanH.

  11. Excellent advice!
    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your perspective and advice.
    I agree, rare and endangered plants can be nerve wracking to deal with!


Leave a Reply (no need to register)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.