The Bird of Paradise is an exotic, beautiful flower that grows wild on South Africa’s coastal areas and river banks. This eye-catching unique plant was given its name because it resembles a brightly coloured bird in flight. Its banana-like leaves mean it is actually classified as a member of the banana family (Musaceae). Other common names are the ‘crane flower’ (again because it looks like a bird), and ‘Geel Piesang’. In botanical terms, the Bird of Paradise is known as ‘Strelitzia Reginae’ – a name deriving from Charlotte of
Mecklenburg-Streliz, who married King George III in 1761. The flower was introduced to England in honour of their marriage by the distinguished botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks.
The Bird of Paradise typically has evergreen leaves and stands about 1.5 metres tall. On top of the long stalk are three bright petals over a long modified ‘tongue’, which emerge from a long green beak-like bract below. This give the appearance of a bird’s head and beak. The flowers tend to be a mixture of bright oranges, reds, whites and yellows for the upright sepals and blues, purples and greens for the ‘tongue-like’ modified leaves. The more mature, well-nourished and nurtured Bird of Paradise will bloom continuously from September through to May. The Bird of Paradise natively flourishes in a tropical, mild and humid climate – consequently it doesn’t cope too well with the frost and cold of some climates. In temperate regions, it will only grow well in a hothouse or conservatory.
The ‘Strelitzia Reginae’ was the first of five species discovered by European naturalists in the late 1700s. They were quickly introduced into Europe and the US as one of the most visually extravagant flowers around. The Bird of Paradise is a strain of this species with orange sepals. When found with yellow sepals it is known as Mandela’s Gold.
Similar to the Reginae, the ‘Strelitzia Juncea’ has beautiful flowers but they appear on the end of rush or reed-like leaves. The ‘Strelitzia Nicolai’ is more like a tree than a plant and can reach up to 20 feet – they don’t bloom until they are quite mature. The ‘Strelitzia Alba’ is known as the white Bird of Paradise due to its white sepals, and the ‘Strelitzia Caudata’ is known as the African desert banana; these are like the Nicolai in that they are tree-like, and like the Alba because they boast white sepals. The Bird of Paradise species is edible – parts are poisonous but the immature seeds of young plants (produced between March and July) are very tasty.
The Bird of Paradise is so well-loved that both Madeira and Los Angeles have it as their national flower – it even has a star constellation named after it (‘Apus’). The plant is thought to symbolise freedom, magnificence, good perspective and of course paradise!