The bird-of-paradise
  A solution to a designer's creativity block

May 13, 2004
Victoria County
Master Gardener

In the design world, there is an old saying that by staring at a picture of a bird-of-paradise, new ideas come to a designer with a creativity block.

Looking at this exotic tropical in a garden setting not only inspires imagination for creative landscape design, but draws attention to its unique characteristics.

For those of you who visited the gardens on the Annual Garden Tour the first weekend of this month, you may have noticed the bird-of-paradise growing in the Goris gardens.

Home to numerous tropicals, the landscaped backyard was full of design technique with a variety of color, shape, height and texture.

The bird-of-paradise towered over the colorful patchwork flowerbed and provided a distinctive contrasting design element to the garden setting of shorter blooming perennials.

Named for its unique flower, the bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia reginae) resembles the head of a brightly-colored tropical bird. This variety is called the crane flower.

It is a slow-growing, evergreen perennial native to southern Africa, but I have had success with it in my own garden setting in pots.

This variety develops slowly by division of its underground stem with a trunkless, clump-forming growth pattern.

The mature clump stands 4 to 5 feet high and spans 3 to 5 feet in width. Leaves are about 6 inches wide and 18 inches long, rising from the clump in a fan-like pattern.

The flower, with its pointed "beak," blooms with an orange, purple and blue crown on the head of the bird.

A stalk holds one to three flowers, each with three orange sepals and three blue petals enclosing the stamen and style.

Winter pruning should be avoided as old leaves help protect it against the cold; it can be damaged at 28 degrees F.

Another variety is Strelitzia nicolai, known as the giant bird-of-paradise, resembling the traveler's palm, but is smaller in size and span.

It can reach a height of 15 feet or more and has flowers in white with blue tongues.

More flowers are produced when the plant grows in full sun; however, the leaves are darker green when it is grown in light shade.

It thrives in most any rich soil with good drainage and is salt tolerant.

The University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension suggests mulching with composted organic compost and applying a slow-release, complete fertilizer at a rate of 1 pound every three months to a full-grown clump.

In cooler climates, the bird-of-paradise can be grown inside. My experience with these is outside plants growing in pots.

With a monthly acidic fertilizer of 30-10-10, up to 15 blooms per season are produced.

Cut flowers can last up to two weeks by changing the water every two days and cutting an inch off the bottom of the stem each water change.

As the flower fades, slitting under the pointed beak exposes a second flower.

The bird-of-paradise is one of the more dramatic varieties used in floral design and can stand on its own or be used with other types of flowers and foliage. It is particularly stunning with ginger and other tropical cuttings.

Propagation is either by seed or division; and seedlings take three to five years to produce flowers.

Division of the plant can produce flowers in one to two years. Hand-pollinated flowers produce seedpods containing 60 to 80 seeds per pod; the seeds are black with orange tufts.

Sow the seeds before they become dry, but if they do, soaking them in concentrated sulfuric acid for five minutes and then rinsing them in fresh water will scarify them - hastening germination.

If the seeds are kept moist, germination can take two to three months. When planting, it does not matter which side of the seed is up.

Separating the clumps or removing young offshoots can easily accomplish propagation by division.

Three months is usual time for divisions to generate new roots and is done by cutting between two sections with a clean, sharp knife and using a rooting hormone before planting in good commercial potting soil.

The bird-of-paradise is generally pest free. Diseases might include bacterial wilt and root rot.

Root rot is a seed-borne fungus and can be controlled by soaking the seeds in room temperature water for one day and then in a 30-minute dip in 135-degree water. Once allowed to dry, they are ready for planting.

The bird-of-paradise is truly a magnificent garden specimen that not only lures attention to its design characteristics, but also provides a dramatic look and feel to any setting.

No wonder designers can be inspired by just looking at it!

I continue to be intrigued with those growing in pots in my own garden yard setting.