There are about eighty heliconia species in the New World tropics. With their paddle-shaped leaves and bright zigzaggy bracts, these members of the banana family erupt wherever sunlight taps the forest floor, providing food, drink and shelter to an astonishing cast of characters. For a slice of rain-forest life, there is no better place to look.
Because of their sun-loving, patchy distribution, heliconias have a problem connecting with others of their species. To fertilize one another, the plants need a pollinator that not only covers a lot of territory but is discriminating as well. Hummingbirds are nature’s specialists for this particular purpose.
Most heliconias have long tubular, curved flowers that only a hummingbird bill can negotiate. As they probe the base of a flower, hummingbirds find a treasure of nectar just for them. These energetic little birds drink up to eight times their own body weight each day, and heliconias produce a generous supply of nectar so they will keep coming back for more; pollinating as they go from one heliconia to another.