Taxonomy, Identification and Ecology of the Heliconiaceae. Final Draft

This discussion topic submitted by Gary Donnermeyer ( on 7/7/98.

Some of the most colorful, fascinating angiosperms of the neotropics belong to the Order Zingiberales. The most distinguishing characteristic of this group is the large, colorfu,l bracteate inflorescence. These include the Heliconiaceae (heliconias), Zingiberaceae (gingers), Musaceae (bananas), and Strelitziaceae (birds-of-paradise). This presentation will briefly distinguish between these important tropical families but concentrate on the identification, and pollination ecology of the Genus Heliconia. We will review basic botanical terms as we explore floral characteristics used to identify members of this colorful genus. Hopefully we will have several species available for hands on practice. If not, we will be encountering these striking plants at various times throughout our trip. In addition to be coming familiar with Heliconias students will learn habitat preference, their role in tropical succession, and interesting information on hummingbird pollination.

Outline Draft.

I. Introduction to the Heliconiaceae and related families.

A. Description and distinguishing characteristics.
1. Heliconiaceae (heliconias)
2. Musaceae (bananas)
3. Strelitziaceae (birds-of -paradise)
4. Zingiberaceae (gingers)

II. Identification of Heliconias.

A. Leaf / Shoot growth habits
1. Musoid (banana like)
2. Cannoid (leaves held obilquely)
3. Zingiberoid (horizontal leaves with short petioles like a ginger plant)

B. Inflorescence characteristics
1. Erect or Pendent
2. Spiral or Distichous

C. Flower and bract characteristics
1. Cheek, keel, tip, rachis
2. Petals, sepals, perianth, ovary, pedicel, fruit

III. Ecology of Heliconias.

A. Habitat preference
1. wet lowlands and forest streams
2. middle-elevation rain and cloud forest habitats
3. few species above 6000 feet and less abundant in virgin forest.

B. Role in succession.
1. Primarily early successional species of secondary growth areas, along river banks and forest light gaps.

C. Pollination
1. Exclusively pollinated by hummingbirds
a. Hermit hummingbird/Heliconia interactions
1. bill shape and size adapted to corolla of Heliconia
2. nonterritorial which is equated with lower caloric content of nectar.

b. Nonhermit interactions
1. bill shape and size adapted to corolla of Heliconia
2. territorial which is equated with higher caloric content of nectar.

2. Self- pollination (self compatible)


Berry, F. and W. John Kress. 1991. HELICONIA an Identification Guide. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London. 334pp

Linhardt, Y.B. 1973. Ecological and behavioral determinants of pollen dispersal in hummingbird-pollinated Heliconia. Am.nat. 107:511-23.

McDade, L.A. 1983. Long-tailed hermit hummingbird visits to inflorescence color morphs of Heliconia irrasa (Heliconiaceae). Condor 85: 360-364.

Stiles, F. G. 1975. Ecology, flowering phenology, and hummingbird pollination of some Costa
Rican Heliconia species. Ecology 56:285-301.

Stiles, F.G. 1983. Pages 249-251. In Daniel H. Janzen ed. Costa Rican Natural History. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

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