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The beauty of the true bird of paradise

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The true Bird of Paradise, or scientifically known as Strelitzia reginae is a beautiful tropical dwarf banana-like plant indigenous to South Africa. Its common name is often associated with the Heliconias, which is also a relative of this unique plant, including the travelers’ palm. It is also popularly known as Crane Flower, due to its unusual form and color. This, together with its long post-harvest life makes it a very important cut-flower.

Its scientific name commemorates Charlotte Sophia of the Mecklenburg-Strelitz family, queen of King George III of England. She is a patron of botany. The Bird of Paradise is commercially produced in countries like Hawaii, California, Florida, The Netherlands, France, Israel, and South Africa.

Because of its tropical beauty, it is the official flower of the city of Los Angeles, California. This herbaceous plant grows to about 2 meters (6½ ft) tall, with large, heavy, strong leaves 25-70 cm (10-28 in) long and 10-30 cm (4-12 in) wide, produced on petioles up to 1 m (about 40 in) long. The leaves are evergreen and arranged in two ranks, making a fan-shaped crown. The plant forms large clumps with many shoots arising from a dichotomously branched rhizome system. The flowers stand above the foliage at the tips of long stalks. The hard, beak-like sheath from which the flower emerges is termed the spathe. This is positioned perpendicular to the stem. This gives its appearance of a bird’s head and beak; thus, given its common name. It makes a durable perch for holding the sunbirds which pollinate the flowers. The flowers, which emerge one at a time from the spathe, consist of three brilliant orange sepals and three purplish-blue petals. Two of the blue petals are joined together to form an arrow-like nectary. When the sunbirds sit to drink the nectar, the petals open to cover their feet in pollen.

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Cultural Requirements.

Light. Strelitzia reginae can be grown in full sun or semi-shaded, similar to bananas and heliconias. The more the plant is exposed to light, the more floriferous it is. However, check appropriateness of lighting; too much exposure to sunlight, especially during summer may scorch leaves.

Temperature. Bird of paradise flowers well in semi cool temperature range of 17-20 degrees Celsius.  Temperature higher than this, about 20-25 degrees Celsius, tend to promote leaf production and inhibit flowering. It is ideal in semi cool areas in the Philippines like Tagaytay, Tanay, Baguio and Davao.

Watering. In their natural habitat, Strelitzia thrive near rivers, indicating their need for abundant supply of water, although they can withstand some drought. Regular watering is the key to continuous flower production. On the other hand, sufficient drainage is required to prevent the soil from being too wet or water logged which may cause root rotting. The plant may also suffer from flooding for long periods.

Soil. Plants grow well in well drained, fertile, humus rich, slightly acidic, loamy soil; although, it may also thrive in various soil types. For healthy growth, use a potting mix of 1:1:1 ratio of garden soil, compost and sand.  For container gardening, establish plants in 6-8 inch pots. Use a humus or compost rich potting mix for healthy growth and water regularly.

Fertilization. A complete fertilizer high in phosphorus is needed by the plant for healthy growth. Fertilizers (example is 10-30-10 NPK) are applied at about 1 tsp per plant. Fertilizers should be applied monthly during the flowering season.

Control of Pest and Diseases. Strelitzia are susceptible to mealy bugs, scale insects, and root rot. Regularly inspect plants for these insects. For repellant purposes, apply dilute solution of soapy water into the plants to discourage insects. For severe insect infestations, apply recommended dosage rate of Parathion or Malathion insecticide.

Root rot is usually caused by a fungus, Thielaviopsis basicola and Rhizoctonia. To prevent this, provide ample drainage in soil or in pot and do not over-water. Apply a dilute fungicide drench using Dithane or Captan.

Propagation. In its native habitat, the plant is reproduced through seeds by way of pollination by sunbirds. However, since these birds are not present here in the Philippines, growers may pollinate them artificially to produce seeds through division of rhizomes or separation of single rooted shoots.

If pollination is successful, 60-80 orange fuss covered seeds are produced and contained in a seed pod. Its seed has a very hard seed coat and thus needs special treatment to overcome seed dormancy. Soaking seeds in concentrated sulfuric acid for 5 minutes or hot water treatment for 30 minutes tend to treat this problem.  There are other techniques also applicable like prolonged soaking of seeds in a basin of water.  However, water should be replaced everyday.

For rhizome divisions and single rooted shoots, use sterilized cutting or pruning instruments to prevent transfer of viral, fungal and bacterial diseases. Wash cutting tools in soap and water, and wipe with 70% isopropyl or ethyl alcohol. For rhizomes, each cut section should contain one lateral bud or “eye”. Cutting is usually done after flowering. It is recommended to remove first the soil around the base of the plant, cut the crown into several divisions, dust the cut-surface with fungicide and let it air-dry for a day in a shaded area. These cuttings are then planted in soil or in a pot. A plant tissue culture technique has already been made to micro-propagate Strelitzia in large quantities.

Special Uses. Bird of Paradise flowers are used as a cut-flower for tropical flower arrangements.  It is also used in ikebana flower arrangements and also mass-propagated for landscaping purposes.