Jan HintzeHow to germinate Heliconia seed

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.

This is a heliconia fruit, dangling from the bract of its mother by the pedicel which raised it up out of the bract to be eaten, or fall to the ground. Some birds are attracted to blue fruit, but not so much in Australia, where most fruit is red.

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.

A collection of seed from Heliconia bihai, var. Claw II. Most seed look like this, but vary in size. These are soaking in water to remove the fruit flesh before sowing

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.

Freshly germinated seedlings with roots still tangled in sphagnum moss, ready to be planted in small pots for growing on. Too small to plant in the open, I wait until they have two canes growing, showing they’ve established a good root system

This shows a Heliconia plant ready for planting – it has two shoots and is quite tall. It will handle full sun and air movement, although it needs to be staked to prevent it wobbling in the soil

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.



Germinating heliconia seed

Germinating heliconia 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.


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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

26 thoughts on “How to germinate Heliconia seed

  1. Ms Hintze, I come across your site with Heliconia seeds that you germinated. This is very cool to me. I germinate and grow everything I can in the winter months in Michigan, USA. I love the tropical plants and palms. Thank you so much for sharing and teaching me something new! Eugene Altomare

  2. Hi there..if the seed feels ceramic does that mean that it is ripe? does that mean that the coating has already rotted away on the plant? or does that mean i need to soak it to get to the seed? also the seeds i have collected are black not blue?? thank you

  3. If the seed feels ceramic and is black/grey, then it is ready to soak and plant. It is the fruit that is blue, not the actual seed inside. The fruit, if it doesn’t fall to the ground, will often dry or rot off the seeds inside the bracts of the flower, leaving just the seed behind.
    I’ve added a photo at the end of the blog post showing the seed, which are 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.

  4. Hi which would you say are the easiest heliconias from seed? I have germinated colinsiana in about three weeks but am waiting for others to germinate

    • It is a bit hard to say which Heliconia seed is easiest to germinate, since a lot depends on the treatment the seed has had. If the seed is harvested when fully ripe, is kept moist all through the cleaning process, and everything else is right, including temperature, keeping seed damp, etc. then often they will germinate within a few weeks. However, if the seed is not quite right, or dries out along the way, it can take a long time. I have had seed germinate after I threw them away (my deadline is a year) – I throw them under the potting bench, where they still get moist, but aren’t taking up space. One thing to check before you sow them – put them in a glass of water, and if they float, the seed is not viable, and the embryo inside has dried and is dead, which saves you from waiting, waiting, waiting. If it sits firmly on the bottom, plant them, and hope for the best. Sterile media is best, since the time involved can allow fungal and bacterial infection in the media, which is why I use sphagnum moss. Hope this helps. cheers, Jan Hintze.

  5. Hi, I’ve just finish reading your suggestion on growing heliconias in seeds and I am so much interested. you mean if a seed is collected from an heliconia when it grows it produces the same flower or species or a different species?

    • Hi Joyleen, Growing seed on to a new plant is a lot of fun and gives great satisfaction. But to answer your question – if you collect a seed from a plant, it has been made by male and female fertilisation with pollen and ovaries, so the result could be a hybrid, where the male pollen is from a different species from the female ovary, or it could be pollen from the same species but another plant, or self-pollination within the same flower. Hybrid pollination is fairly unusual, but does happen, particularly if you have a lot of different heliconias growing in the garden. This will give you quite a different flower with characteristics from both parents. Self pollination or pollination by the same species can give you different flowers from the parents, if the species is variable – such as Heliconia bihai, which comes in a wide range of colours from yellow, to deep wine red, and bicolour varieties. In this case you might get a different colour from the parents, or perhaps a variation in size or shape. However, a species like H. rostrata, which shows little variation, although there is some in colour, size and vase life, seeds from their flowers are unlikely to show much variety. These principles apply to most other flowers too, and some plants – like fruit trees and roses have been hybridised and selected for special characteristics for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

    • I am sorry to hear that – a great disappointment. The explanation might be that the seeds were not clean of fruit flesh – since the surface of the seed is quite rough, sometimes it isn’t easy to get it all off. The contents of the bag, sphagnum, seed and water all should be sterile, so that the fungal spores aren’t lurking to grow in this very favourable environment. Also, you need to check that the seeds are fertile before planting – if they float, they will not germinate. This applies only to Heliconia I might add. Some seed is evolved to float for distribution purposes. The next time you try, I suggest that after cleaning the seed, a short soak in a 1% chlorine solution might ensure the seed coats are sterile. Do not use bleach which is ‘improved’ by adding detergent.

  6. Hi Jan, interesting read about growing from seeds. I’m new to growing from seeds and was wondering what your experience is with Regalis seeds, how long they may take. Is there any other method you would recommend besides the sphagnum moss. I’m wanting to try a few methods, to see what best result I will get. Thank you kindly

    • I have germinated regalis seeds, and have one plant growing here successfully (in Darwin, Australia). How long germination takes, depends on how fresh the seed is and how it has been treated since harvest. It can vary between a few weeks and a year. After a year I give up. As I have said above – check the seed fertility before you start – floating seeds are empty of an embryo. If the seed has been kept dry, germination may take a long time. Soaking the seed in fruit juice for a day or two, sometimes assists, by sort of duplicating the rotting fruit which would normally accompany the seed to the ground, or through the bird which eats it. Then sterilise with a 1% chlorine solution, and plant in the bag. I find this method the best, since I don’t have to remember to water them, and this can be an issue if the seeds take a year or so to germinate, as can happen. However, if you have plenty of seed, you can try planting some in pots in the normal manner, and I know some growers just drop them in the ground under the shade house bench and wait for nature to take its course. This method gets interesting if you do it with several species!! By the way, don’t try to open the seed with sandpaper or a grinder (they are very hard). This seems to always result in damage to the embryo, and loss.

  7. Hi Jan, thanks for reply. The seeds have come from overseas, so thought they would have been sterilised before coming here. I did check that they didn’t float first and all were good. Interesting to hear about the juice method. I’m trying soaking and the bags as well as in containers. Cheers Tracy 🙂

    • Hi Jan, mine aren’t Regalis but was wondering what they were like compared to the Xanthovillosa I have, so I think I will just have to be patient and wait n see how long they take to germinate. Happy gardening and thanks again

  8. Hi Jan,
    Do all blue Heliconia berries have seed in them. I’ve checked and can’t find the ceramic like seed you mentioned. Rob

    • Unfortunately, no, not all berries have seed. Sometimes, in fact often times here in Australia, pollination is not properly achieved, and although the flower manages to grow a berry, it is infertile hence no seeds. In areas where there are proper pollinators, such as honey eaters, some pollination will occur and seed will be found in the berry, usually two seed. The pollinators in the natural environment in South America are humming birds, whose long thin beaks fit nicely into the Heliconia flower. There you will get dozens of berries in the many bracts of the flower.

  9. Hi, I have aquired about 25 seeds of Heliconia Psittacorum, I have searched how to propagate them with no success, can you please advise, thanks.

  10. I have just received some seeds labeled Heliconia from China. They are very small and black. Does this sound right to you and what do you advise?

  11. Hi Ian, sorry to take a while to get back to you, but here I am. it seems surprising to get Heliconia seed from China, for two reasons – the climate is not good for them, even in the south, and if they are very small, that doesn’t sound like Heliconia. Generally, their seeds are about 5 mm long, 3 mm wide and a mm or two thick. They are grey to black, very hard and feel like gravel. H wagneriana seed are on the large side. If they have been kept moist, they will germinate within a few months, otherwise they may take a year. The most successful way is to soak the seed for a day or two in some apple juice, to acidify the seed coat, then put them in a ziplock bag with some moist sphagnum moss, and keep them out of the sun, but in bright light. Eventually they will germinate, but it is a long term project. Do not attempt to cut or scratch the seed for this doesn’t speed anything up, and will probably damage/kill the seed.
    Hope this helps – cheers Jan H.

  12. Hi Jan, well I surreptitiously picked up some seed from our local zoo in Auckland New Zealand and not knowing how to deal with the seeds, googled it and found your page. Followed your instructions with ziplock bag, some moss I scraped off a shady part of my back lawn, and a heated germination pad. Pad has been going for some 3 months now with no sign of life, so was about to chuck the whole thing in when much to my surprise I discovered a seed sprouting! A bit worried now about when to plant him out, but will leave until he has a couple of leaves. Thanks for the advice!

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