Flowery Drama

By: Virginia Hayes

birds-of-paradise.jpgWe know we live in paradise. The sun shines almost every day (well, at least for a few hours), it’s never too hot, it’s never too cold, and just about anything will grow here. Especially some bizarre and wonderful flowers that look so much like birds that they’ve been given that as their common name. Most people know the orange and blue bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) whose beaky blooms grow all over town. But you may not have ever associated flowers of that same architecture with the giant bird of paradise that looks like a tough version of a banana plant.

One description of Strelitzia nicolai invites the viewer to imagine a palm tree trunk with a banana plant sprouting from its crown 10 or 20 feet in the air. Then imagine a handful of them growing altogether in a clump and you do have a fairly accurate picture of this lofty herb. The leaves fan out laterally from the trunk making for a handsome silhouette against the sky or nearby buildings. They are not as regular as those of their cousin the traveler’s palm, Ravenala madagascariensis; traveler’s palms have the shape of a giant Victorian-era feather fan. Unfortunately they are too tender to grow here, but have been widely planted in tropical areas all over the world and if you travel to Hawai‘i or other places near the equator, you will surely see them in the landscape.

The flowers of the giant bird of paradise are only inconspicuous if you are expecting something brightly colored like those of its cousin S. reginae. They are certainly not small. Each inflorescence will consist of a boat-shaped bract from 12-18 inches long. Out of this hull, four to six flowers will fan upward in succession until the whole thing looks like the fancy plumage on an exotic bird’s head. Showy white bracts accompany the blue flowers. The flowers offer prodigious quantities of sweet liquid nectar as a reward for visits by pollinators. In Southern California they are visited by hummingbirds and surprisingly, our native acorn woodpeckers, too. Hummingbirds are the new world equivalent of the sunbirds that occur in Africa, so it is not surprising that they have learned to enjoy this free lunch. Of course the bird of paradise does benefit by offering this buffet. When the bird lands on the flower, its weight forces the two fused petals open to reveal a pollen-covered surface. Some of this pollen will stick to the breast of the bird as it flies off to drink from the next flower. Once there, it is likely to deposit some of the pollen on the stigma where it can contribute to pollination. If you’ve ever lived around a giant bird of paradise, you can probably attest that this works, for seedling plants are frequently apt to spring up under the parents.

Because of their size, giant birds of paradise may not be for every garden. They will continue to increase in diameter as new trunks are added to the clump. Give them only moderate water to help keep them growing slowly. Periodic thinning of old stalks may be necessary with very mature specimens. This will also encourage new shoots so that the whole plant will have a succession of sizes on display. If you just don’t have room for them, consider the smaller, more manageable S. reginae. These form trunkless clumps of tough leaves only four feet or so in height. The boat-shaped leaf is supported on a stiff stalk as is the familiar orange and blue “bird.” Because the flowers have a nice long stalk, they are suited to cut for arrangements in the house. When you cut them, shake out as much nectar as you can before putting them on your table indoors or it may drip all over your newly waxed surface. And if orange is just a little too garish for you, there is now a lemon yellow cultivar named ‘Mandela’s Gold.’ Another species (some consider it just a subspecies or form of S. reginae) is S. juncea. The leaves of this interesting plant have been much reduced so that it resembles a very large juncus. That is, until you see the familiar bird-like blooms. All types of Strelitzia are quite drought tolerant so they are suitable for our South Coast gardens. For landscaping drama, they are hard to beat.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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