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Revista mexicana de biodiversidad

versión On-line ISSN 2007-8706versión impresa ISSN 1870-3453

Rev. Mex. Biodiv. vol.80 no.3 México dic. 2009


Nota científica


New records of Heliconia (Heliconiaceae) for the region of Chajul, Southern Mexico, and their potential use in biodiversity–friendly cropping systems


Nuevos registros de Heliconia (Heliconiaceae) para la región de Chajul, sur de México, y su uso potencial en plantaciones amigables de la biodiversidad


Bráulio A. Santos*, Rafael Lombera and Julieta Benitez–Malvido


Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Antigua Carr. a Pátzcuaro 8701, Col. Ex–Hacienda de San José de la Huerta, 58190 Morelia, Michoacán, México.


* Correspodent:


Recibido: 04 noviembre 2008
Aceptado: 24 abril 2009



We report 4 new records of Heliconia species (Heliconiaceae) for the region of Chajul, one of the most studied sites of the Mexican Lacandona. Records are for H. champneiana Griggs cv. Maya Gold, H. latispatha Bentham cv. Orange Gyro, H. vaginalis Bentham, and H. wagneriana Petersen. We provide a brief description of morphological and ecological traits of the species and demonstrate the high potential they have to be cultivated in biodiversity–friendly cropping systems. We suggest the use of Heliconia in the enrichment of secondary forests and forest fragments as an alternative of combining forest management with biological conservation.

Key words: Heliconia aurantiaca, Heliconia champneiana, Heliconia collinsiana, Heliconia latispatha, Heliconia librata, Heliconia spissa, Heliconia vaginalis, Heliconia wagneriana.



Se registran por primera vez 4 especies de Heliconia (Heliconiaceae) para la región de Chajul, uno de los sitios más estudiados de la lacandona mexicana. Los nuevos registros son para H. champneiana Griggs cv. Maya Gold, H. latispatha Bentham cv. Orange Gyro, H. vaginalis Bentham, y H. wagneriana Petersen. Se presenta una breve descripción acerca de las características morfológicas y ecológicas de las especies y se demuestra el alto potencial que tienen para ser cultivadas en plantaciones amigables de la biodiversidad. Se sugiere el uso de Heliconia en el enriquecimiento de bosques secundarios y fragmentos de selva como una alternativa de combinar manejo forestal con conservación biológica.

Palabras clave: Heliconia aurantiaca, Heliconia champneiana, Heliconia collinsiana, Heliconia latispatha, Heliconia librata, Heliconia spissa, Heliconia vaginalis, Heliconia wagneriana.


Heliconiaceae is a plant family represented by a unique tropical genus, Heliconia. These perennial herbs belong to the order Zingiberales and are phylogenetically close to Musaceae, Strelitziaceae, Marantaceae, Cannaceae, Zingiberaceae, and Lowiaceae (Berry and Kress, 1991). Heliconia traditionally belonged to Musaceae with the genera Musa and Ensete. The unique combination of inverted flowers, presence of a single staminode, and peachlike fruits led taxonomists to place Heliconia into a new family, Heliconiaceae Nakai. The overwhelming majority of the 180 known species of Heliconia are in the Neotropics, while only 6 are native to the Old World tropics, especially from Samoa in the Pacific Ocean to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (Berry and Kress, 1991).

Heliconia interacts with a vast number of organisms in tropical forests. Hummingbirds pollinate their colorful flowers in the Neotropics, while bats pollinate their pale green flowers in the Paleotropics (Berry and Kress, 1991). Fruits are blue in the Neotropics and red in the Paleotropics, but both are dispersed by many bird species (Berry and Kress, 1991). Viruses, bacteria, and fungi are known to infect their roots, shoots, leaves, inflorescences, fruits, and seeds (Assis et al., 2002). A myriad of insects including flies, hispine and flattened carabid beetles, caterpillars, and ants feed on or live inside their water–filled floral bracts and young rolled leaves (Seifert, 1982). Such biotic interactions involving Heliconia demonstrates its ecological value in tropical communities.

Heliconia is also an important ornamental genus. It has been long commercialized in European and American markets as cut flowers, potted plants, and in interior landscape. To give an example, Hawaiian Heliconia production generated about 2.8 million dollars between 1987 and 1988 with a production of 370 000 stems (Berry and Kress, 1991). In 2000 and 2001, Colombia exported 16 species, cultivars, and varieties ofHeliconia to 44 countries, with incomes reaching about 440 million dollars (Diaz et al., 2002). Both Hawaiian and Colombian Heliconia where produced in small cultivation areas (<1 km2 for Hawaii), indicating how these plants can maximize the use of space. Despite their ecological and economic values, geographic distribution of native Heliconia remains poorly understood in Mexico.

In this work we include 4 species of Heliconia that represent the first records for one of the most studied sites of the Mexican Lacandona: the Chajul Biological Station (16°08' N, 90°55' W) and its vicinity in the southern limit of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (hereafter region of Chajul). Species were observed in the localities of Chajul (16°07' N, 90°55' W), Loma Bonita (16°06' N, 90°59' W), Playón (16°10' N, 90°53' W) and in both margins of the Lacantún River. A brief description of morphological and ecological traits of species is provided and its potential use in biodiversity–friendly cropping systems is discussed. New records were observed during a long–term research on Heliconia–pathogen–herbivore interaction.

To guarantee that findings were actually new records, we searched the recorded species in Berry and Kress (1991), Martínez et al. (1994), and Gutiérrez–Baéz (1996, 2000). These publications provide useful information on the botany and ecology of Heliconia, permit accurate species identification in the field, and join the available information on Heliconia distribution in Mexico. Because these studies are more than 10 years old, we used ISI Web of Science, Google Scholar, the Missouri Botanical Garden database (Mesoamerica projects), and the CONABIO database (World Biodiversity Information Network – REMIB) to search for recent records of Heliconia in Mexico. Since it is easy to identify reproductive individuals of Heliconia in the field (see Berry and Kress, 1991), no botanical collection was done. Nevertheless, species determination was also supported by specialists in Heliconiaceae (W. J. Kress) and by reviewing specimens in herbaria. Botanical nomenclature followed Berry and Kress (1991).

We found 8 species of Heliconia in the region of Chajul (Table 1). Four of them had already been listed by Martínez et al. (1994) and Gutiérrez–Baéz (1996) for the region of Chajul: H. aurantiaca Ghiesbreght ex Lemaire (Castillo 3688 – CHAPA, XAL), H. collinsiana Griggs var. collinsiana (Sinaca and Ibarra 1102 – MEXU, XAL; Castillo 3953 – XAL), H. librata Griggs (Sinaca and Ibarra 1093 – MEXU), and H. spissa Griggs cv. Mexico Red (Castillo 3779 – XAL). Our results highlight the occurrence of 4 other species in the same region: H. champneiana Griggs cv. Maya Gold (see Stevens 25585 – MO, Davidse 36370 – BRH, MO), H. latispatha Bentham cv. Orange Gyro (see Ibarra 265 – MO), H. vaginalis Bentham (see Breedlove 47357 – MO), and H. wagneriana Petersen (see Stevens 25115 – MO).

According to Kress (2001), H. champneiana is found from Southern Mexico to Nicaragua, but no detailed information on the species distribution in Mexico was provided. Here, we complement his data by demonstrating that the species is found in the region of Chajul, Chiapas. Heliconia latispatha occurs throughout the Neotropics, from Mexico to South America (Berry and Kress, 1991; Gutiérrez–Baéz, 2000). In Mexico, this species can be found in the states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Campeche, and Chiapas (Gutiérrez–Baéz, 2000). In the state of Chiapas, particularly, there are records for the localities of Ostuacan, Tonalá, Escuintla, Yajalón, Tres Picos, Huixtla, and Tapachula (Gutiérrez–Baéz, 2000). We add the region of Chajul to this list. Heliconia vaginalis is found from Mexico to Colombia (Berry and Kress, 1991; Gutiérrez–Baéz, 2000). In Mexico, it has been recognized in Veracruz, Tabasco, Guerrero, and Chiapas. In Chiapas, there are records for Palenque, Ursulo Galván, La Libertad, and now for the region of Chajul. Heliconia wagneriana has the same distribution as H. vaginalis (from Mexico to Colombia) (Martínez et al., 1994; Berry and Kress, 1991), but in Mexico it has been only documented in Tacotalpa (Tabasco) and La Libertad (Chiapas) (Martínez et al. 1994; CONABIO database). We expand southward its distribution in Chiapas.

Expanding the geographic distribution of plant species in highly diverse tropical rain forests is a significant contribution toward the success of conservation initiatives. With accurate geographic distributions we are able to identify local biodiversity hotspots and conserve more species in smaller areas. Our bibliographic review revealed that the Mexican Lacandona houses 14 native species of Heliconia (H. adflexa, H. aurantiaca, H. champneiana, H. collinsiana, H. dielsiana, H. latispatha, H. librata, H. psittacorum, H. rostrata, H. schiedeana, H. spissa, H. uxpanapensis, H. vaginalis, and H. wagneriana). The region of Chajul, as defined here (~100 km2), accounts for 57% (8 species) of this diversity in less than 1.5% of the Mexican Lacandona area (~8 000 km2). This makes the region of Chajul a priority site for conservation of these ecologically and economically important plants.

Because of its high local diversity of Heliconia, the region of Chajul is a highly suitable site for the sustainable management of the genus in Mexico. Morphological differences in the inflorescences its 8 species confer a variety of cut flowers for the grower (Table 1). Successive periods of blooming guarantee production throughout the year (Table 1). Differences in growth habit and plant size give additional variety to the products to be commercialized as potted plants or in interior landscapes (Table 1). Such natural variety of ornamental products demonstrates the high potential of the region of Chajul for the market of ornamental plants.

Considering the ongoing scenario of deforestation and forest fragmentation in the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot, the major challenge for the conservationists is to design efficient strategies that combine species use with biodiversity conservation (Harvey et al., 2008). Mexican fragmented landscapes are usually dominated by small private fragments that still sustain a large subset of the original biota (Arroyo–Rodríguez et al., 2009). By encouraging the enrichment of forest fragments with native Heliconia species, we may add an economical value to forest remnants and increase the likelihood of their protection. Because the huge majority of Heliconia species are shade–intolerant, forest enrichment can be done without logging in natural treefall gaps. The same can be done in secondary forests that regenerate after the abandonment of unproductive agricultural lands. Nonetheless, growers should be technically assisted in order to maintain the genetic, functional and taxonomic diversity of the managed forests.

To summarize, few regions in the tropics have the local diversity of native Heliconia species that the region of Chajul has. Such biological heritage has potential to be rationally exploited through the implementation of biodiversity–friendly cropping systems, combining economical activities with nature conservation. Further studies should evaluate the use of Heliconia in disturbed forests from an economic perspective. Special attention should be paid to find potential consumers in the competitive internal and external markets of ornamental plants, especially in Europe and the USA, to identify logistic bottlenecks in the commercialization of these perishable products, such as costs of infrastructure and transportation toward distribution and sale centers, and to quantify financial benefits for local people in order to insure economic and social development for the region.



Authors thank to W. John Kress for helping in species identification, G. Ibarra–Manríquez and V. Arroyo–Rodríguez for valuable comments and suggestions, and E.W.C. Stadtler for field assistance. Fieldwork was supported by DGAPA/UNAM (PAPIIT Project IN220008) and Rufford Maurice Laing Foundation (RSG 40.08.08). B. A. Santos was supported by a PhD scholarship of the CONACyT–Mexico and by the Posgrado en Ciencias Biológicas of the UNAM. This note was written while J. Benítez–Malvido was on sabbatical at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut, supported by CONACYT and DGAPA/ UNAM.


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