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Byron Shire
December 4, 2023

Long lost relative or ‘exotic’ plant?

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Heliconia rostrata: the lonesome ‘exotic’ plant. Photo Dr Mary Gardner.

Story & photo Mary Gardner

Lying low in the heat of the long afternoon, I am cocooned in a chair with my feet up and my eyes on the garden.  Maybe ten by five metres at most, the raised bed is jam-packed with red flowering ginger and several dozen hanging lobster-claw Heliconia rostrata.

The Heliconia started their spectacular annual display of red and gold in late November. What is so compelling about them?

These Heliconia rostrata are over a metre in height, with bright long leaves similar to the banana. What are often called flowers are bright showy bracts, which open up one by one over three months. From within each ‘beak’ opens a long yellow tube of a flower.

Magnet for birds

The nectar attracts blue-eye fig-birds, friar-birds, and mynahs, as well as ants. But only a certain Central or South American hummingbird can pollinate this flower. Each of some ninety species of Heliconia have a special pollinator partner.

That hummingbird has a beak of the exact shape and length to reach a trigger at the back of the flower which ensures the seed is receptive to the pollen.  The bird also has a wandering lifestyle, so that it returns every few days as each flower opens one by one.

In Australia, Heliconia is a lonesome ‘exotic’ plant. Sometimes, it can self pollinate. A very small blue-black fruit ripens. Collect these, soak them for a few days in water until the fruit can be scrubbed off. Then plant the three or four very hard seeds in some moist germinating mix and watch for some months.

The seedlings will only have one embryonic leaf. That’s fine as they are monocots, like their relatives the gingers, bananas and turmerics. Like them, Heliconia will happily grow from rhizomes. Procured from a nursery or neighbour, this species will flower year after year.

No records quite explain who brought Heliconia or many of its relatives to Australia. The order (a collection of families) is known as Zingiberales and are all immigrants who journeyed from the tropics of South America across to the Western Pacific. The stories people told about them and the people themselves are scattered and displaced.

The latest evidence is that Zingibareles diversified back in Gondwana some 124 million years ago. As the continents shifted and climate changed, Australian species died out but for two members of the banana family still found in Northern Australia.

Locally extinct

Wild Heliconia were once found in great tracts throughout tropical rainforests, but are now classified as vulnerable. They are locally extinct where deforestation runs riot. Do rare plants that can grow in a foreign soil qualify as refugees? Could their pollinators be reunited and resettled here with them in these subtropics? What about the storytellers?

Should we think this way about plants and their pollinators? Facing global warming and forest destruction, is millions of years ago too long ago to consider this as a repatriation? Hummingbirds are rather young, dating from only 22.4 million years ago. Some are still rapidly evolving. Over the last five million years, the bee hummingbirds in the Andes evolved into some 35 different species. Could hummingbirds fit into Australian life?

What about our relationships and responsibilities? Without the unique creation tales that once explained this, how can we understand for generations to come what these are and what to do? Who in this day can express renewed myths? Can we learn? Can we teach our children?

Blame these ramblings on the heat. Or on the Heliconia. After all, they are named for Mount Helicon in Greece. This fertile area with water gushing forth from two springs was the favourite haunt of the muses – goddesses inspiring poetry, music and arts. 

Why hasn’t this garden some Waratah Telopea speciosissima? Owing to deforestation and over-harvesting they are now also threatened plants. Once more, gardens are a refuge for yet another species. Cross-pollinated varieties such as Shady Lady Red will grow in the subtropics.

Horticulturists send Waratah to nurseries here around June. That’s months away from now. Time enough to slowly ponder such a project and all its questions of ecology, morality, and myth.

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