Strelitzia (Bird of Paradise)

The Spectacular Bird of Paradise Plant

The Strelitzia, commonly known as the Bird of Paradise Plant, is a spectacular, unmistakable and the unchallenged Queen of the house plant world. One look at it when it's in flower and you know where it got its common name; the flowers look incredibly like the head of a rather exotic crested bird.Bird of Paradise - Strelitzia Reginae

They are pollinated by sunbirds, which use the "beak" on the flower as a perch. The weight of the bird on the "beak" opens it to release the pollen onto the bird's feet, which is then deposited on the next flower it visits. By using birds rather than smaller insects to do the pollinating it means as the plant ages and gets bigger rather than the plant producing ever increasing numbers of the same sized flowers, what you find is the blooms themselves also get larger and larger.

The Strelitzia is the official flower of Los Angeles, although it originates from South Africa. It was named after an English Queen; Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744 - 1818). Queen Charlotte was an amateur botanist and when her husband King George III inherited the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens in 1772, it gave her the perfect chance to get her hands dirty and help with its development. In 1773 Sir Joseph Banks brought back this spectacular new plant to Kew Gardens from South Africa, where it was officially named after Queen Charlottes family name; Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

There are five main species and varieties, although only Strelitzia Reginae and Strelitzia Nicolai are treated as houseplants.

S. reginae is very well known, and arguably the most common species (picture above). If the pot is big enough It can grow to 2 m / 6.6 ft tall, with large, banana like leaves 25–70cm / 9.8–28in long. They are produced on petioles (stems) up to 1m / 39in long. The leaves are evergreen and emerge one at a time, usually in a criss cross pattern placement which ends up making a fan-shaped crown. The flowers are predominately orange with a touch of blue.

The most common and recognised S. reginae - 'Mandela’s Gold'variety has orange flower heads, although you can get a newer variety called S. reginae 'Mandela’s Gold' which has yellow and blue flowers. Yellow flowering Bird of Paradise plants had been around for a number of years. However the seeds from these yellow forms would not usually breed true because most would have been pollinated by different varieties. To get a yellow variety that would breed true, two yellow parents are needed.

John Winter at Kirstenbosch (Africa) in the 1970's, pollinated their limited supply of yellow strelitzia's (they had only seven!). By 1994 after twenty years of careful selection and hand-pollination they had increased the original seven to a large enough number to release it commercially. It was originally sold and traded under the name 'Kirstenbosch Gold' until 1996 when its name was changed in honor of Nelson Mandela to become 'Mandela’s Gold'.

Strelitzia Nicolai flowerS. nicolai is named after Nicholas I of Russia (1796 - 1855) considerably bigger than Queen Charlotte's plant, potentially reaching 6m / 20ft tall. It has vivid white flowers and a black "beak". The leaves as well as being bigger and longer than S.reginae's, tend to be shinier and greener. It's harder to get S.nicolai to flower and as you might imagine it takes considerably longer to reach its final mature height.

They always make a statement and the ultimate magnificence of a mature plant will command attention above everything around it

Both types have much in common, including being named after Royalty, their majestic nature and being very easy to grow. Although you need to bare in mind these plants are truly spectacular, not just in their flowers but also in their size. They always make a statement and the ultimate magnificence of a mature plant will command attention above everything around it. This would be the perfect specimen plant when space is at a premium but where you want something with the "wow" factor. A large bright contemporary apartment for example.

No matter how much you like the look of the white flowers of S.nicolai do not go looking for it unless you have the space to house it. The way all Strelitzia's grow means it's impossible to prune the plant without killing it, and each leaf it sends out will almost always be one step larger than the last. However if you fall in love with these plants they will completely dominate, and even after it's long taken over you will still be a happy subject of its rule.


Plant Care and the Secrets to Success

Light

Young Strelitzia in a new potIf you want lots of growth and eventually flowers it's going to need bright light and some sun. A East or West facing window should do the trick. You should also get away with a South facing window in a pinch if some shielding is provided but North facing ought to be avoided. Strelitzias will cope with a darker position, but growth will be much slower and the likely hood of flowers is lower. You will also get a more "spread" plant overall.

Watering

This will depend on where you end up putting it. The plants in brighter, warmer spots are going to need considerably more than those in darker positions. A good rule of thumb is to water after the top of the soil becomes dry. Our favorite tip however is the weight of the pot trick. It's very easy to pick up a young Bird of Paradise plant and so this method works particular well.

Humidity

If the air is very dry, an occasional misting would be helpful.

Feeding

Strelitzia's are hungry monsters so plants which are rapidly growing need fertiliser once a month, plants which are growing very slowly i.e. have little need for feed, cut back to bi-monthly instead. No feeding in Winter is needed.

Temperature

Average home conditions would be fine, especially if you have chosen a brightly lit or Sunny spot. It needs warmth to grow well and a cooler temperature between 8°C - 15°C / 46°F - 59°F in Winter.

Repotting

In the early years this is fine to do each Spring, however if you want flowers or you are trying to restrict the growth of the plant you need to keep it pot-bound. If it's housed in a plastic pot, a large Bird of Paradise will eventually distort and bulge it horribly. Therefore prepare to cut it free when it comes to repotting and know that when you do it will likely result in a disruption to the flowering cycle.

Propagation

Very mature Bird of Paradise plants will produce offsets which can be cut free and potted up, although this can be difficult. A more convenient method is to try and grow new plants from seeds. Like the flowers in which they are created, Bird of Paradise seeds with a tuff of orange hairthey are quite something with their largish seeds that have a tuff of orange hair. Pull off the hair, pot up and place in a warm place.

Germination is often erratic and unreliable but you can increase your chances by nicking the outer seed coat a tiny bit, this will allow water to move deep into the seed to trigger the germination. In time we hope some of our readers will use the comment section below to share their experiences with Bird of Paradise propagation (in fact some already have, so have a read below if you want to find out more).

Speed of Growth

The speed of Bird of Paradise growth in good conditions can be seen with roughly one new leaf each month during the growing seasons. Visually this may not seem much, but the roots are truly monstrous and will fill a pot in no time making this quite a fast growing plant.

Height / Spread

The plants will generally head for height rather than spread. S. reginae grows to 2m / 6.6ft tall. S. nicolai eventually reaches 6m / 20ft tall. However both types will flower long before they reach their eventual maximum heights.

Flowers

The following steps should hopefully help, although patience is key because ultimately you can't order a King or Queen to do anything quickly. In order of importance:

  • Maturity - They plant needs to be at least 4 years, and often older, before they are capable of producing flowers.
  • Pot-bound - You must keep their root growth restricted, and this is done by keeping the plant pot-bound. i.e. stop repotting into larger containers when your plant approaches its 4th Birthday.
  • Light - It needs sun or a brightly lit spot.
  • Feeding - If you have fed the plant as recommended in the Feeding section, then you shouldn't have to worry about this. But if you don't normally feed your house plants and all the above steps have already been met, consider feeding. Never feed more than recommended though, as this is equivalent to a human overdose and can have equally dire consequences. If the plant doesn't die then the leaf edges can become brown, dry and ugly.

Anything else?

The flowers last a long time so they are often worth the effort. If you get a seed pod when flowering finishes why not pot them up and give any seedlings away to family and friends.

As mentioned in our introduction you can't easily prune a Bird of Paradise plant without ruining its look and future growth so all you can do is to be prepared to accommodate its large size. You can of course prune out the flowers once they are finished, just cut them off as close to the base as you can.


Help! My Bird of Paradise is Dying

There isn't much that can keep royalty down (and coming from England we should know) and therefore problems afflicting Bird of Paradise are normally rare.

No flowers on my Bird of Paradise

See the "Flowers" topic in the care and secrets to success section.

No growth

Strelitzia tends not to grow in Winter, in darker spots or just after a repotting (its energy is being spent growing its massive tap roots). The Bird of Paradise has huge tap roots that can distort most plastic potsIf none of the above applies, make sure the plant is being watered adequately, or that it's not in too small a pot. It's true you need to keep the plant pot-bound to make it flower, but it still needs a reasonably sized pot to let it grow to a flowering size first.

If you can cross off everything suggested above but the plant is otherwise healthy, leave it be and things should start up again in time.

Plant growth is somewhat leggy

A plant getting lots of light will produce new leaves which sit close to one another. A plant which is in a darker spot will produce leaves which are on longer petioles (which is the stem like part) and in a more dispersed and wider position. It does this to increase the leaf surface area exposed to light, so to maximize the limited light it does receive.

Leaves curling on my Strelitzia

This is only normally seen in young plants. Although the adult plant likes bright light and some sun, the youngsters may struggle with it in the early years. When the light level reduces the leaves uncurl, but it's probably best to move to a slightly darker spot until it's older.

Leaves dropping off

As the plant gets taller its perfectly normally for the bottom leaves to yellow up and then drop off. If this happens to the upper leaves then its likely one of two things, far too much watering, or far too little. Asses which one it is and adjust your watering routine accordingly.



Credit for the Yellow "Mandela’s Gold" / "Kirstenbosch Gold" photo to Martin Addison
Credit for the picture of the Bird of Paradise seeds to Sebastian Stabinger


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