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Strelitzia — the Bird of Paradise or Crane Flower

Strelitzia is an easy plant to grow in the garden.

Strelitzia is an easy plant to grow in the garden.

This striking perennial is one of South Africa’s most successful plant exports! It forms sturdy clumps of grey‑green banana‑like leaves and boasts unique and wonderful bird‑like orange‑and‑blue flowers.

STRELITZIA REGINAE

The fascinating blooms of Strelitzia reginae are sold as cut flowers by the million. In Los Angeles strelitzias are so extensively planted that it is regarded as the emblem of the city. Strelitzia reginae is, however, indigenous to South Africa where it grows wild in the Eastern Cape. Here the strelitzias grow in rocky grassland and between other shrubs along the riverbanks and in clearings in the coastal bush.

Strelitzia reginae arrived in England in 1733 and was named after Queen Sophia Charlotte, the wife of George the 3rd of England. She was a princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, hence the genus Strelitzia.

Strelitzia reginae is a bold structural plant, which forms large evergreen clumps of stiff leaves growing up from the base. The grey-green banana-like leaves grow about 1,5 m in height and the flowers stand above the foliage at the tips of long stalks. Mature plants are very floriferous with flowers in autumn, winter and spring. These produce abundant nectar that lures insects, and birds which (in South Africa) include White-bellied, Black, Grey, Collared, Malachite and Marico Sunbirds and the Cape White‑eye.

The structure and pollination of the flowers are rather interesting. The hard, beak-like sheath from which the flower emerges, is called the spathe. This is placed at right angles to the stem, which gives it the appearance of a bird’s head. The flowers, which emerge one at a time from the spathe, consist of 3 brilliant orange sepals and 3 bright blue petals. Two of the blue petals are joined together to form an arrow-like nectary. When the birds sit to have a drink of nectar, the petals open to cover their feet in pollen.

Traditional healers prepare a remedy from the flower that is used to deal with swollen glands.

Strelitzia reginae is an easy plant to grow in the garden. Plants do well in full sun to semi-shade, love a rich loamy soil and plenty of water throughout the year. They respond well to regular feeding with a slow release fertilizer and compost. They are however very tolerant plants and will thrive in most soils and can survive with very little water once established. The plants are also wind resistant and grow well in coastal gardens. Strelitzias are sensitive to cold and would need a sheltered position in areas with frost as the flowers and leaves are often damaged by frost. In very cold climates it is better to grow them in pots that could be moved indoors when freezing temperatures are expected.

Popular with landscapers, this architecturally pleasing plant is ideal for modern landscapes, creating an impact not only in home gardens, but also in office complex gardens, schools and large parks. This Strelitzia can form an impressive groundcover when mass‑planted in very light partial shade.

Propagation is by seed or division. The plants are slow growing and large clumps that are split or moved will take about two years to re-establish and flower again. From seed, plants given ideal conditions will flower within 3 years. To get a mature flowering plant from seed takes about three to five years. For best results sow fresh seed in spring.

Before sowing, remove the bright orange tuft of hairs attached to the seed (aril of each seed) and soak in an aqueous solution of ethrel at a concentration of 6ml ethrel (39.5% active ingredient) to a litre of water. Sow in seed trays filled with a well-drained soil medium at a depth of 1,5 times the size of the seed. A constant temperature of 25o C is most suitable for germination as low temperatures retard germination. Germination takes four to eight weeks. Seedlings should be a good size (two to three leaves) before being transplanted into a well drained medium. Young strelitzia plants must be grown in shade, for the leaves tend to burn in direct sunlight. Regular repotting allows the young plant to develop rapidly. Restricting the root development retards growth.

STRELITZIA REGINAE ‘MANDELA’S GOLD’

This is a rare yellow form of the well-known Strelitzia reginae. It was released and traded under the name ‘Kirstenbosch Gold’ until 1996 when the National Botanic Institute of South Africa was granted permission to re-name it in honour of Nelson Mandela. This variant is grown and cultivated in exactly the same way as S. reginae.

STRELITZIA JUNCEA

This is a striking feature plant with upright needle-like leaves, growing from 1 to 2m in height and producing large orange or yellow flowers borne on long, cylindrical scapes. The species is slow growing and takes 3 to 4 years to flower. Grown under ideal conditions S. juncea is floriferous and long-lived. Although the leaves are very different, flowers resemble those of the more commonly cultivated S. reginae. The species name juncea is derived from the Latin, juncus, meaning rush, a reference to its rush-like appearance.

The growth is different to the S. reginae, being very slow in most cases, it can reach 2m in height on average and looks a lot more delicate in stature. Juncea does not multiply by suckering; the subdivision takes place between the middle leaves of each fan.

A well-drained soil is essential for the successful cultivation of this species and full sun is essential for maximum flowering. Juncea is drought resistant and lives very closely to other native drought resistant plants in the wild.

STRELITZIA NICOLAI

Also known as the Natal Wild Banana, this is a tall, striking foliage plant related to the better-known crane flower, Strelitzia reginae. S. nicolai grows mostly in coastal dune vegetation and in evergreen forests near the coast. This species grows up to 12m high and 4m wide. It is an evergreen tree with multi-stems that form dense clumps. The stem is woody and smooth in texture. It is light to dark grey in colour and marked with old leaf scars.

Attached to the stem by long, thick leaf stalks are the enormous, opposite leaves that are shiny and grey-green in colour, with blades capable of reaching up to 2m in length. These tear in the wind and come to resemble giant feathers. Although not related to the true bananas or the wild banana Ensete ventricosum, the leaves and growth habit of S. nicolai are somewhat similar and probably account for the common name.

The large ‘bird‑of‑paradise’ flowers are purple‑blue‑and‑cream, and produce abundant nectar that attracts sunbirds, in particular (in South Africa) Olive, White-bellied, and Black Sunbirds. In their natural environment, monkeys eat the soft parts of the flower and are partial to the orange, fluffy‑looking seed aril. The larvae of the Banana Nightfighter butterfly feed on the leaves. The Zulus grind the seeds into flour, mix with water, and shape into small cakes, into which the oily orange arils are inserted. These cakes are then baked over coals — bland but filling.

These plants are grown not so much for their flowers as for their special impact on the landscape, and their clean lines and shapes that suit them ideally to modern architecture. The plant has a rather aggressive root system (keep away from buildings, foundations etc.), and tends to sucker from the base, so allow plenty of room for it to spread. Plant this fast‑growing shrub in a protected position in frosty gardens, in fertile soil. Add plenty of compost and organic material to the planting area, mulch well, and water regularly throughout the year in all areas. Feed with slow‑release 3:2:1 fertiliser at intervals of 6‑8 weeks throughout summer.

The easiest way to propagate this tree is from root suckers, but it will also grow from seed. To grow from seed remove the orange arils and sow seed in a mixture of equal parts river sand and compost. Cover with a thin layer of compost and keep moist. Keep seedlings in a shady spot for the first season. Once planted out this plant is fast growing. It will grow in semi-shade or full sun and requires a moderate amount of water, composted soil and space to spread.

OTHER STRELITZIA SPECIES

Strelitzia Alba is found in South Africa and also in Madagascar. It is so similar to S. nicolai that few gardeners can tell the difference.

Strelitzia Caudata is a rare and very difficult plant to find, it grows in the mountains of the tiny Kingdom of Swaziland. As a result commercially available seed is extremely scarce. It is a tall, banana-like tree up to 8m high, with a fan shaped crown. It has a long, tail-like tip on the end of the leaf. The flower is a large boat-like dark blue shaped bract (spathe) 45 cm long, with blue and white petals.