Bird of Paradise Plant

Phil Peters
Adams County Master Gardener

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, but it has finally come. As I was perusing this yearís new garden catalogs, I noticed one of them offered seeds for the Bird of Paradise plant. Now this is a plant that once you have seen it, you will certainly never forget it. The flowerís unusual shape and rainbow of colors make it a standout in any assortment of flowers, and, consequently, you often see it in special floral arrangements.

As you can see from the photo, when open, the flower has the appearance of an exotically-colored bird spreading its wings. Anchored by a large, ostentatious bract that serves as the base, the colorful flowers that arise from it are so unusual and striking that they overwhelm everything else in a display and give the appearance of a brightly-colored bird.

Undoubtedly you have delighted in the unusual and exquisite beauty of the amazing Bird of Paradise plant. It is a highlight in many floral displays. A yellow or orange cluster of sepals arises like a handful of fingers from the sharp, canoe-shaped bract colored in pale green with a deep pink-red edge (border); the purple flower sticks out horizontally and holds the anthers and style.

In the wild the plant is pollinated by the sunbird, a small sparrow-like bird that feeds on its nectar. The colorful display of flowers serves to attract the bird and the firm bract with the purple flower inside gives the bird a sturdy perch. When the bird lands on the purple flower to get the nectar, the petals spread and the birdís feet come in contact with the pollen. When the bird lands on the next plant, the pollination cycle is completed.

The plantís scientific name is Strelitzia and the most spectacular species found in our horticultural gardens is S. reginae, the Queenís Strelitzia. And who is the queen (regina)? She was Charlotte von Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818). She was the wife of Englandís George III; and while she may not be well-known to us in North America, her husband was king during the American Revolution.

The plant originated in South Africa but is now found in many tropical countries and is a show piece in botanical gardens everywhere. It is also grown in Hawaii and Southern California where, according to Wikipedia, it is the official flower of the City of Los Angeles. Florists like the plant because the blooms are long-lasting when cut.

This is a warm-climate plant; and, unless you have a warm greenhouse, you wonít find it growing in Pennsylvania. Although I had seen the flower in some arrangements, I first encountered this plant growing in gardens while I was travelling in Costa Rica. Since it canít tolerate frost, it needs protection anywhere north of AHS Heat Zone 8. (Heat Zones were established by the American Horticultural Society. They take into account the number of days of average temperature above 86̊ F.) It is marketed as a Zone 11 plant, a tropical zone and a far cry from our Zone 6 climate.

Growing this beauty in Pennsylvania takes skill and lots of patience. It can be grown in a greenhouse in a fertile potting mix that is well-drained. Care must be taken to provide shade from hot sunlight and to see that there is good air circulation when the temperature rises above 68˚ F according to my A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (edited by Christopher Brickell & Judith Zuk).

Now for the patience part, the catalog notes that germination of the seeds takes from 30-180 days. I suppose, if I had a greenhouse or a sunny corner I would give it a go. The actual plant is quite large, growing up to 6 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide. I donít really have that kind of space.

On second thought, maybe Iíll just go back to Costa Rica to relax and enjoy these gorgeous plants. Talk about a win-win situation!

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