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Garden Q&A

New Heliconias Bring the Tropics Stateside

May 18, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Question: I finally made my first trip to Hawaii and was impressed by the heliconias, those most tropical of flowers. I heard they could be grown here, but when I tried to find one, people thought I was crazy or had never heard of them. What's the scoop and where can I get some?

--J.G., Camarillo

Answer: Though the 12-foot-tall Heliconia schiedeana (pronounced shay-de-ANN-a) has been grown here for years, most kinds are far too tropical, even when planted on warm, frost-free slopes. However, gardeners are getting excited about some new kinds brought in from the more temperate areas of southern Mexico and Central America by Gary Hammer of Desert-to-Jungle Nursery. He says they are extremely hardy and tough and will even survive most winters in the San Fernando Valley. His associate Del Pace thinks the plants are easily hardy to 27 degrees.

The new species come from mountain forests and grow near the 3,000- to 4,000-foot altitude, so they actually prefer cooler temperatures. Hammer says they won't grow in more tropical Florida because it is too warm for them but that they "thrive and bloom here, not merely hang on." Because these heliconias come from mountain forests, they require partial to fairly deep shade, except for right along the coast where they can take morning sun.

Note that it is the bracts of the plants that are decorative. Bracts are not true flowers but are modified leaves--similar to the red "petals" on a poinsettia. Because they are modified leaves and not true flowers, they last a long time, though tiny true flowers briefly appear inside the bracts.

There are several new kinds of heliconias, with bracts colored yellow, pink, magenta, red or a mustard orange. The one with the pink bracts is named Heliconia spisa and is Hammer's favorite because it grows to only 6 feet and does well even in a container. Many species reach 12 feet and more, growing to the height of big bananas, which they vaguely resemble. When actor Jeff Goldblum wanted a jungle look in his garden, designer Robert Cornell suggested "a truckload of heliconias" from Hammer.

Incidentally, like bananas, heliconias need to be grown in a protected spot or wind will shred their leaves. They also need lots of water ("they are not drought-resistant!" said Hammer).

Heliconia aficionado and attorney David Lloyd (who also has a business called Banana Dave-Select Tropicals) has been growing Hammer's heliconias in his protected north San Diego County garden and finds them the toughest of the 250 or so kinds he's experimented with--and so far the only ones to bloom. He currently has about 30 to 40 varieties in the ground that look promising.

His favorite from Hammer's selection is one named H. angusta (H. citrina), with clear yellow bracts and wind-resistant leaves. It only grows from 3 to 5 feet tall; Lloyd suggests that it's the one to start out with if someone is just beginning.

Desert-to-Jungle Nursery is located at 211 W. Beverly Blvd., Montebello, (323) 722-3976. Retail nurseries can also order from Hammer's wholesale-only Glendale Paradise Nursery. Don't expect to see blooms on nursery plants, since it takes at least two years for them to begin flowering.

If you are interested in the more tropical varieties for a greenhouse or indoors, there is a mail-order specialist--Aloha Tropicals in Vista, Calif., http://www.alohatropicals.com.

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Q: You mentioned having to weed false garlic. Can I use Roundup to kill false garlic? Is false garlic related to garlic chives and is it edible?

--T.S.

Los Angeles

A: Though false garlic (Nothoscordum inodorum) looks like an onion relative, it has no odor and is not edible, or at least delectable! Spraying Roundup will do nothing since this herbicide will just roll off like water from a duck's back. The only control is to dig up all the plants, being sure you take enough soil to also get all the little bulblets that are very loosely attached to the main plant. Put them all--dirt too--in the garbage.

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Q: Can I use Roundup to eradicate mint plants that are strangling my roses?

--A.D.

Whittier

A: I would never use Roundup around roses. Roses seem to be particularly sensitive to this herbicide and strange, stunted growth often follows its use. Though it is the No. 1-selling herbicide in the country, some people will not use Roundup, period, since there is some evidence that it has residual effects and is not as safe to use as previously thought, though the jury is still out on this one.

Roundup works best in situations where it is impossible to eradicate some deep-rooted persistent weed such as Bermuda grass, and there are no other plants close by. Digging plants like mint out by hand is not difficult and it is a whole lot safer for the roses. But if you want to kill off a Bermuda grass lawn so it will not come back, using Roundup and carefully following label directions will do the trick.

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