Bird of Paradise

Known as “the empress of house plants,” the tropical bird of paradise plant (Stre- litzia reginae), also known by the names wild banana and giant bird of paradise, is a large, very colorful specimen in the banana (Muscaceacea) family. This plant should not be confused with the aviary species Bird-of-Paradise, which inhabits Molucca and Australia. It comes in an array of different shades, including blue and orange blossoms.

The bird of paradise is in the kingdom Plantae and the phylum Magniliophyta. Strelitzia nicolai (giant bird of paradise), the largest of the several different species of the plant, can grow to be up to 30 feet tall. However, the average size of these plants hovers about 4 or 5 feet when mature. Because of the flamboyant and distinctive coloring of this plant, it is often grown for ornamental uses and is popular as a decoration. The South African Stretzilia reginia is used for cut flower bouquets worldwide. In general, the bird of paradise plant is popular because of its wide array of colors, and it is cultivated mainly for this purpose.

Species and Origin

The bird of paradise originated and is native to South Africa and South America. Different species are found in various regions of the world, depending on their needs and the temperatures they thrive in most successfully. Each species of the bird of paradise is unique and requires a particular setting to be harvested appropriately. The different species of bird of paradise flower differently, with varying rates of growth.

These unique and illustrious plants earn their name from their resemblance to a brightly colored bird or crane in flight, and are not to be confused with aviary species bearing the same name. The genus Stretzilia encompasses four different species, including Stretzilia alba, the white bird of paradise, found only in South Africa; Stretzilia caudata, the African desert banana; the Stretzilia reginae, crane lily; and Stretzilia junceau.

Stretzilia alba (white-flowered wild banana) is the rarest of the four species and the least commonly cultivated, the two most common species of the plant being Stretzilia reginia and Stretzilia nicolai. Stretzilia alba is also the only member of the Stretzilia genus that has been proven to have a distinct chromosomal composition from its counterparts. A 1955 study by geneticists Cyril Dean Darlington and Phillipa Wylie came to the conclusion that because the flowers of the bird of paradise are separated by character and distribution of genetic components, Stretzilia alba is the only species of Stretzilia with a different number of somatic chromosomes. Stretzilia alba has a haploid number of 11, while the remainder of the species of the bird of paradise has a haploid number of 7.

Stretzilia junceau has stems that are long and spiky, with upright needle-like leaves that turn into orange or yellow flowers. This species is the slowest-growing bird of paradise, taking three to four years to flower fully. Each species of Stretzilia has slightly different physical characteristics. For example, a similar plant in the same family, Strelitzia parvifolia, is smaller and slightly different in shape.

Maintenance and Care

The bird of paradise plant is generally not too difficult to care for. It does, however, have certain stringent requirements for maintenance and care. It can thrive only in temperatures of 50°F to 84°F. Freezing temperatures can damage its leaves, though these plants can tolerate a mild degree of frost. It is advisable, in colder weather, to move any bird of paradise flowers that are outside into a pot indoors. Bird of paradise has monocotyledonous roots, which are extremely durable and tough. These types of plant generally do not require a great deal of water.

Bird of paradise is propagated by division or by seeds. The germination of seeds is very erratic, but takes only a few weeks at most. The bird of paradise flower is orthinapalous, requiring nectar-eating birds to pollinate it. In this symbiotic relationship, birds sip the nectar while the pollen coats their breasts and feet and causes the blue petals to open. The nectar birds that feed on bird of paradise are a vital part of the pollination process. When the seeds are pollinated, the bird of paradise seeds develop over a period of six months and transform into pods with three sections of black seeds and bright orange arils.

The leaves of the bird of paradise vary from four to eight inches long. Bird of paradise is not deciduous, making these species an ideal indoor plant, and it can also be optimal for outdoors if the temperature permits. Though the bird of paradise is a direct relative of the banana, its rate of growth is much slower; some bird of paradise plants can take years to fully mature.

Basin or flood irrigation is the recommended method of care for these plants, for preventing the accumulation of salty water in the soil below the plant. The plants require as much sunshine as can be delivered, regular planting, and a good fertilizer at least once a year. Birds of paradise can produce as many as three dozen flower spikes a year, each of which lasts up to two weeks when cut. If these plants are maintained properly, the bird of paradise is a flamboyant addition to the home, indoors or outdoors.

Bonnie Ellman

Further Reading

Scott, Susan. Plants and Animals of Hawaii. Honolulu, HI: Bess Press, 1991. “Stretzilia reginae ” Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Strelitzia-reginae.htm (accessed 10 December 2011).

University of Florida EDIS. (accessed 10 December 2011).

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