- Division: Magnoliophyta
- Class: Liliopsida
- Order: Zingiberales
- Family: Strelitziaceae
- Genus: Strelitzia
- Species: 5 species
Bird-of-paradise is one of the world’s best-known plants. Native to the subtropical coastal areas of southern Africa, it has been cultivated worldwide, and it has been naturalized in North, Central, and South America, as well as in Portugal, where it is the national flower. Its exotic appearance, with unique and brightly colored flowers that look like the head of a bird, has made it a favorite with horticulturists, designers, florists, and gardeners. In full flower, a bird-of-paradise looks a bit like several birds hidden in a clump of foliage, craning their necks up and turning their plumed heads and pointed beaks in different directions.
The most famous and noticeable part of bird-of-paradise is its flowers. Set atop long stalks that can reach five feet in height, the flowers have a complex structure with bright colors and copious nectar to entice their bird pollinators. A green, red, or purplish canoe-shaped bract (a modified leaf, also called a spathe) forms on the stalk, and it opens along its top edge to reveal the flower petals, stamens, and prominent stigma that unfold from inside the sheath. The flowers typically bloom from September through May.
Birds seek out the nectar, which is found in the “nectary” at the base of the flower where two petals join together. A bird hops onto the smaller, lower petal, and the bird’s weight exposes the anthers, which brush pollen on the bird’s feet and chest. When the bird flies to another flower, it lands on the prominent and sticky stigma and deposits pollen, before hopping in for another nectar treat. Different birds act as pollinators for different bird-of-paradise, but some birds, like sunbirds, have been found to be “nectar robbers,” avoiding the flower’s pollinating parts and just eating the nectar.
The leaves on a bird-of-paradise plant are arranged to form a fan-like clump of thick, waxy, and evergreen foliage. The color of the leaves varies from glossy, deep green, to blue-green, to muted gray-green. The leaves are paddle shaped, similar to banana plant leaves, and attached to a long, upright stalk. An exception is the narrow-leaved bird-of-paradise, which has leaves like pointed spikes on mature plants.
Bird-of-paradise are hardy, drought-tolerant plants that are easy to grow, especially in warm climates, and they are used extensively as ornamental landscape plants. They can also be grown as indoor houseplants in cold areas. The flowers are a staple for florists in creating exotic and tropical arrangements, not only for their looks but also because they are long lasting—up to two weeks.
This is the most well known bird-of-paradise, with its brilliantly colored flowers: blue base petals arising from a dark green spathe, topped with an upright fan of bright orange sepals. In their native South Africa, these are also known as crane flowers, because they resemble the head of a crowned crane. The plants are pollinated by weaver birds in Africa; in the US, one of their pollinators is the yellow-breasted warbler.
This is a much larger plant than Strelitzia reginae, forming huge clumps of stems that can reach 30 feet in height in mature, well-established plants. Its flowers are different as well: the crown of sepals is white or faintly pink, with a blue “tongue” of petals, arising from a dark purplish black bract. One flower spathe sprouts out of another, which gives them a double-decked appearance. The flowers bloom from spring to late summer, and they produce copious amounts of nectar that is attractive to sunbirds in their native Africa and orioles in the US.
This is the most drought tolerant of the bird-of-paradise varieties. It has very thin, almost reed-like leaves and grows in a dense clump, making it a lovely accent plant. The flowers are slightly smaller than those of Strelitzia reginae, but are the same color.
In its native Africa, Strelitzia juncea is only found in six locations along the Eastern Cape, and it is listed as Vulnerable due to quarrying and industrial development, illegal collection for the horticultural trade, and invasive plants. In addition, the number of natural bird pollinators has declined and the plants produce few seeds, further endangering their survival.