Strelitzia is a genus of five species of perennial plants, native to South Africa. It belongs to the plant family Strelitziaceae. The genus is named after Queen Charlotte of the United Kingdom. A common name of the genus is bird of paradise flower/plant, because of a resemblance of its flowers to birds-of-paradise. In South Africa, it is commonly known as a crane flower and is featured on the reverse of the 50-cent coin. The distinctive bird of paradise (Strelitzia spp.) is one of the best-known tropical flowers. Strelitzia is toxic to cats and dogs.
Bird of paradise typically flowers in the late winter or early spring, but it can flower at other times of the year when provided optimal conditions. These plants grow with upright leaves emerging directly from the soil and have no trunk. They are pollinated by sunbirds, which perch on and drink from the spathe. The weight of the bird when standing on the spathe opens it to release the pollen onto the bird's feet, which is then deposited on the next spathe it visits. Strelitzia species lack natural insect pollinators; in areas without sunbirds, plants in this genus generally need hand pollination to successfully set seed.
Table of Contents
0.5 - 33 feet (depending on type)
Up to 15 feet (depending on type)
5.5 - 7.5
Growth Nutrition of Bird of Paradise
Birds of paradise plants tend to be heavy feeders. They prefer a balanced fertilizer that has equal parts nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (1:1:1). Steer manure offers a natural option that provides this balance and makes a great bird of paradise fertilizer.
Types of Bird of Paradise
There are five Strelitzia species, but only two are commonly grown as indoor plants: S. reginae (orange bird of paradise) and S. nicolai (white bird of paradise). Some make perfect potted plants, like the relatively short S. juncea and S. reginae.
An entirely different genus, Caesalpinia, includes a number of broad-leaved evergreen trees and shrubs that also carry the common name "bird of paradise." The shape of these plants and the appearance of their flowers is starkly different than Strelitzia species. They'e generally desert dwellers. Here are some different species from two disparate plant genera, each commonly known as "bird of paradise."
Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae)
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.
Strelitzia reginae 'Glauca': This orange variety has powdery grayer foliage and stems.
Strelitzia reginae 'Humilis' or 'Pygmaea': This orange variety only grows to about 3 feet in size.
Strelitzia reginae 'Ovata': This orange variety features rounded leaf blades.
The most common and well-known variety has orange flower heads, but a newer variety produces a yellow flower. Yellow Bird of Paradise flowers has been around for a long time in the wild. However, seeds from these forms rarely germinate naturally because most of them are pollinated by different varieties. It takes two yellow parents to produce a yellow variety. During the 1970s, John Winter pollinated a stock of yellow Strelitzia (only seven of them) at the National Botanical Garden in Kirstenbosch, Africa. It took them twenty years of careful selection and hand pollination to get enough of their first batch sold commercially in 1994.
Until 1996, it was sold under the name “Kirstenbosch Gold”, but in honor of Nelson Mandela, the name was changed to “Mandela’s Gold”. This is the only variety of this species. The grayish-green banana-like leaves of Mandela’s Gold can reach a height of 5 feet (1.5 m). The large flowers are made up of three transparent yellow sepals and three dark purple petals.
White Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia nicolai)
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.
Juncea Bird of Paradise (S. reginae var. juncea)
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.
The S. Alba plant gets its name from its majestic white flowers, which bloom between July and December. Unlike the Reginae variety, S. Alba grows a sprawling 30 feet tall. As a result, it is rarely found anywhere but in the wild, where its height allows it to access sunlight easily. This majestic plant has an uncanny resemblance to the banana plant, which is why it is also known as the white-flowered banana plant. Its large leaves give it a flair reminiscent of the traveler’s palm. The plant needs plenty of water and warmth to thrive. As a result, it is ubiquitous in its native South Africa and Madagascar, where there are optimal growth conditions.
Also known as the Mountain Strelitzia, this is one of the rarest kinds of Bird of Paradise to find. It grows almost exclusively in the mountains of Eswatini. In a home setting, the plant only thrives if it is grown by an expert botanist. The plant is one of the more imposing types of the Birds of Paradise flowers, growing to a height of up to 20 feet. It also has large banana-like leaves that give it rich and luxurious foliage. Planting it indoors is, therefore, an ill-advised move.
Red Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)
Plants of the Caesalpinia genus that carry the common name bird of paradise are much different than the Strelitzia species. Caesalpinia pulcherrima, sometimes known as red bird of paradise, pride of Barbados, or peacock flower is a fast-growing, broad-leaved evergreen shrub native to arid regions. It blooms repeatedly with red-orange flowers. At the northern end of its range (zone 9), this bird of paradise plant can be deciduous. Its prickly stems make it useful as a barrier plant. This plant and Caesalpinia species have much smaller flowers than the Strelitzia bird of paradise plants. The blooms somewhat resemble azaleas, appearing in clusters. The red bird of paradise—which prefers a desert-like environment—belongs to the legume (pea) family, which is evident from the shape and arrangement of the leaves. It is native to Arid regions of tropical Americas.
Mexican Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia mexicana)
Closely related to the red bird of paradise, the Mexican bird of paradise is another broad-leaved evergreen tree but with flowers that tend toward yellow. It has somewhat better cold tolerance than C. pulcherrima, remaining evergreen down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It blooms repeatedly with clusters of yellow flowers that resemble azaleas, and the leaf shape and seed pods make it obvious that it is a member of the legume family. It is native to Northern Mexico.
Yellow Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii)
Caesalpinia gilliesii, commonly known as yellow bird of paradise, poinsiana, or bird of paradise bush, is a shrub-like form of Caesalpinia. It is evergreen in warmer climates and has red or yellow azalea-like flowers that bloom in July and August. The fernlike leaves identify it as a member of the legume family. The seeds are expelled when the pods dry out; this plant self-seeds very easily and can escape and naturalize into surrounding areas. It is native to Argentina and Uruguay.
Planting Bird of Paradise
Potting Bird of Paradise Plants
Bird of Paradise plants prefer to be pot-bound, so use a small container with just about 1 inch of space between the roots and pot.
Plant in a well-draining potting mix. The potting medium should be allowed to dry out to some extent between waterings; using a well-draining mix helps to ensure that the soil doesn’t remain wet.
Do not plant too deeply. Expose the top of the roots to encourage flowering.
Bird of Paradise prefers full sun but will tolerate indirect light.
Growing Bird of Paradise
How to Grow Strelitzia From Seed
Be patient when growing strelitzia from seeds. It can take two months for the seeds to germinate. Soak seeds in room-temperature water for 24 to 48 hours before planting. Remove any orange stringy material. Nick the seed with a knife or nail file. Plant the seed in a well-draining potting mix about 1/2 to 1 inch deep and at least 3 inches apart from other seeds. Place the container in a warm, indirect sun location (at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit). Cover with a cloche or plastic wrap, keeping the soil moist but not soggy. Once the seedling germinates and produces two to three leaves, transplant to a 6-inch pot. Once your plant reaches 6 inches, it is ready for a more permanent home.
How to Get Strelitzia to Bloom
Once your plant is at least four to five years old, it is mature enough to bloom. To spur flowering, keep it pot-bound. Give it a lot of sun (at least 6 hours of full sunlight or bright light) and feed it on schedule. One of the most common reasons a bird of paradise fails to flower is insufficient light. These plants should also be kept evenly moist throughout summer, but allow them to dry out between watering.
Bird of Paradise Care
Strelitzia are beautiful plants that can be successfully grown inside; however, the biggest drawbacks are their size; they can grow 5 to 6 feet tall. These plants need 3 to 5 years to mature before they flower. They work well in massed plantings outside or as a specimen plant in warm climates, where their flowers rise above the foliage for an impressive display.
The trick to successful growth indoors is bright light with direct sun, regular watering, and warmth. Feed the plant with compost early in spring before new growth begins and fertilize every week during the growing season. To increase survival rate, grow the plant in a container that can be moved outside in warm summer months and returned inside during the winter.
This plant needs bright light, including some direct sunlight, to bloom well. However, it requires shielding in the direct midday summer sun, which can burn the leaves of younger plants. A good position is in a room with windows facing east or west. Avoid rooms with only a north-facing window.
Use rich, well-drained potting mix for potted plants or a compost mixture. If using a pot, make sure it has ample drainage holes to allow water to flow through the soil and out of the pot.
Keep the soil continually moist throughout the year. While it should not be waterlogged, expect to water it daily in the spring and summer as it loses moisture through its big leaves. You can water it until you see the water draining from its drainage holes, but make sure it does not sit in a pool of water. If overwatered, the plant will develop crunchy brown leaves. If underwatered, the leaves farthest from the center will turn yellow.
Temperature and Humidity
Bird of paradise prefers high humidity. You might want to keep a spray bottle handy to mist it if your home is dry. Keep the air temperature above 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. This is not a cold-tolerant plant, and it recovers slowly from frost damage.
This plant is a heavy feeder. Feed it in the springtime with slow-release pellets or weekly during the growing season with liquid fertilizer.
Pruning and Propagating Bird of Paradise
Birds of paradise flowers last for about three weeks before dropping their petals and dying. Remove old or damaged plant matter. This is the best way to thin the leaves. Remove the leaves by pulling them off or use sharp cutting instruments. Sterilize the implements in between different plants. If a leaf appears mostly healthy, leave it intact. If your plant has grown really large, and you need to do significant cutting down, use loppers, hand pruners, or a pruning saw in the early spring. Do not use hedge trimmers, which leave ragged cuts. You can cut all leaves and stems down to just above the ground. If the plant remains too crowded, use long-handled pruners and remove selected stems and leaves.
Propagating Bird of Paradise
The best ways to propagate birds of paradise are division and sowing seeds. Division is easier and quicker than growing from seed. It's best to use mature plants that have been previously blooming for at least three years. Here's how to divide strelitzia.
To propagate by division:
Depending on the size of your plant (and its rhizome or underground root structure), you will need larger instruments like a shovel and saw for in-ground or large plants. For smaller plants, you can use a sharp knife. If potting the division, you will need a new pot and a well-draining potting mix.
You can also remove the new growth or offshoots at the base of the plant that has at least three leaves and divide the rhizome below ground with a shovel, saw, or knife.
Repot in a new container with a well-draining potting mix.
Potting and Repotting Bird of Paradise
Bird of paradise is a rapidly-growing plant that needs to reach a certain size before it blooms. A bird of paradise that is 3 to 4 feet tall grows well in a 10-inch pot. A 5- to 6-foot plant usually thrives in a 14-inch pot. Repot it every spring into the next-size-up pot.
Once it reaches maturity, allow it to be pot-bound so that it will bloom. You can divide it by the time it has matured or bloomed at least once but do it infrequently since crowded clumps produce the most blooms. Repotting disrupts the bloom cycle.
If it gets below freezing where you live for a prolonged time, you might kill this plant if you do not take it inside for the winter. To overwinter outdoors, cut the stem and leaves down to just 12 inches above the ground. Cover the entire stem and rhizome area with a layer of mulch, then leaf litter, and straw. Cover that with breathable row cover material and stake it down. As soon as spring arrives and the threat of the last frost is gone, remove the toppings.
Pests and Plant Diseases
Monitor the plant for aphids, scale, and whiteflies. If you see them, use insecticidal soap for control and apply it to the undersides of the leaves. Systemic pesticide is also effective. If you use systemic pesticide, the plant will distribute it from its roots through to its leaves and flowers. Bird of paradise is also susceptible to Botrytis cinerea (gray mold). Flowers and leaves with this condition will develop dark spots followed by a layer of gray mold. Remove the affected parts of the plant and allow them to air out.
Common Problems With Bird of Paradise
Strelizia is a relatively easy-going plant with very few issues. It is most prone to root rot and insects that prey on the plant when its optimal conditions are not met. But, if it's not overwatered, kept fed, and given ample light and air circulation—it can keep most problems at bay.
Wilting or Browning of Leaves
The most common disease affecting strelitzia is root rot. When the roots of the plant sit in water or the soil gets soggy for a prolonged amount of time, a fungus that causes root rot can overtake a plant. It can be avoided by letting the soil dry out between waterings. Another sign you have root rot includes a rotting smell. Some plants can be saved if caught early. To fix root rot, pull up the root ball, cutting away blackened, moldy parts of the rhizome, apply a fungicide according to the instructions, and repot in a sterilized container with fresh, well-draining soil.
Curling leaves are a sign of underwatering. You can avoid this problem by giving more water and making sure that the water runs freely from the bottom of the pot. This thorough watering ensures that all the roots have access to water, but make sure that the plant doesn't sit in that water. Soggy soil can cause other problems.
Yellowing leaves can mean several things. First, if the occasion leaf turns yellow, and the plant is a mature plant, it can be the normal life cycle of the leaf of that plant. However, if many leaves begin to yellow it can be a sign that the plant does not have ample humidity, it needs more nutrients, or if the yellowed leaves are toward the outside of the plant, it's not getting sufficiently watered. Increase each of those factors—one at a time—to see if that solves the problem.
Slits or Breaks in the Leaves
This plant's leaves are large. If your strelitzia develops slits or breaks in the leaves, especially if your plant lives outside for some part of the year, it's natural and normal. The plant develops slits to allow the plant to circulate air around its leaves and roots. Wind and breezes contribute to slitting. Air circulation keeps mold and other pests from settling in.
This exotic flower can make you feel happy with its vibrant color and tropical feel. The large green leaves are good for air circulation and purification due to their size.