Lovely as a cut flower in tropical arrangements, the bird of paradise evokes an exotic, tropical feel whenever it is encountered. A perennial clumping plant, it tolerates light frosts in winter and blooms heaviest in midwinter to late spring. The flowers' shape remind you of the spread wings of a bird, and the flower's stem and head also reminds some of a crane's neck and poofy head, giving rise to the name crane flower.
A subtropical non-woody plant, bird of paradise is indigenous to the eastern cape region of South Africa. It grows among other shrubs along the rivers and stream banks and in sunny openings along the coastal bluffs and country glades.
A member of its own plant family, Strelitziaceae, bird of paradise's scientific name is Strelitzia reginae. It and others in the family remain closely related to the banana family (Musaceae) and lobster claw family (Heliconiaceae) as evidenced by the similar growth habits, leaves and flowering characteristics.
The botanical name, Strelitzia reginae, honors Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of George III of England. She was a German and delighted in the contemporary exploration of lands far from Europe by royal subject botanists. In fact, Queen Charlotte's "green thumb" led to the establishment of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.
The waxy, firm but juicy stems and leaves of the bird of paradise stand upright in a clump. The leaves emanate from a fan-like ray of stems, colored light gray-green. The leaf blades are oval and cupping. In winter and spring, as days length and warmth returns, tall stalks rise just above the foliage, topped with a boat-like spathe. The spathe splits open on the top to reveal unfurling three orange to yellow sepals and three contrasting blue-purple petals, resembling a fluttering bird. Two of the three blue petals fuse to form a nectary, from which pollinating birds drink sweet nectar and inadvertently pollinate the bloom.
The bird of paradise grows outdoors in nearly frost-free subtropical and tropical regions (USDA Hardiness Zones 9 and warmer) as a specimen clumping plant in foundation beds and mixed flower borders. It also does well in large containers. Culture for the bird of paradise where not hardy includes growth in containers in greenhouses or as a house plant that gardeners relocate outdoors only in summer for luxuriant growth.