To follow up on my last blog about growing heliconias and gingers from rhizomes, I thought we should talk about Heliconia seed. Heliconias set seed relatively freely in their natural environment, since they have the right pollinators, usually humming birds, but here in Australia, it doesn’t often happen. However, some varieties will self pollinate, and with others you get the occasional seed, through the activities of ants and other insects. The exciting thing about growing your own seed, is that because the seed are often variable naturally within the species, there is also a chance that it will have been cross pollinated with another species, and you will get something completely different.
So you can sow your own seed, if you get it, but seed is also available from seed collectors in Central America, usually people who have collected plants for their collections, and then harvest the seed. Heliconia seed can be quite variable, even if collected in the wild, and seed from your own plants, or collector’s gardens, is even more so, since the chance of cross pollination is higher, when so many varieties are in the one place. This is different from the natural environment, where there might only be three or four species growing in the same niche.
Heliconia seed is found in a small fruit, roundish and between 5 and 10 mm in diameter, resting in the cupped bract of the inflorescence. Or hanging from the bract, if it is a pendular flower. When ripe, it is usually bright blue, although the occasional one is red or yellow. The fruit sits on a 2 cm pedicel which lifts it up, so its colour attracts birds, who eat the fruit and spread the seed, which is indigestible. Inside the fruit, there is between 1 and 4 seeds, which have a very hard seed coat.
To clean the seed of fruit flesh, put it in a ziplock bag with enough water for them to slosh around, and in a few days, the fruit will have rotted away from the seed. Leave them for a few days more, so the acid from the fruit commences to open the seed coat. Then take them out of the bag, and put the clean seed in a container, with some sphagnum moss, which is moistened with clean water, label it, with a date, and seal the container. (This can be a ziplock bag, jar, plastic box – anything so long as it is clear). Keep the container somewhere in bright light, but not direct sunlight, and as the seeds germinate, the plants can be extracted from the container once they have one or two leaves, and planted up in small pots for growing on.
Be aware these seeds can take up to a year to germinate, since they have a very hard coat (it feels like ceramic) and piercing this is very difficult. Mechanical methods usually result in damaging the seed.
Here are some seeds germinating – the greyish blobs in the sphagnum, with two seeds germinating, almost ready to pot up. The seed varies a bit in size according to species, but is about 5 mm x 3 mm and flattish.