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
vahayes@lotusland.org.

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