Originally the bird of paradise was categorized in the same family as bananas. The leaves and growing habitat are similar, but the flower is actually of the family Strelitziaceae and is an evergreen herbaceous bush. It is best known for its showy flowers. Some species can grow 15-to-30 feet tall. It does best in moist soils in a shady or part-sun location, much like what it experiences in its native jungle environment. It has been used as an ornamental landscape plant and a florist centerpiece in modern cultivation.
Bird of paradise has a thick stem, usually with a red strip, presented vertically on the leaves. The plants have a clumping habit and thick leather leaves that can be as much as 8 feet long in some species. They can grow to more than feet tall in the rain forest. The typical plant is only about 3-to-5 feet high and arranged in a bushy clump. Bird of paradise plants propagate through rhizomes, fleshy root-like storage devices just under the soil. The plant can become invasive when grown in a home landscape but can flourish and spread in a rain-forest habitat.
Bird of paradise produces three flowers on the stem, which last for four days and then are replaced by more. The stem is know as a concinnus, or condensed cyme, and the flowers emerge from the top of the concinnus. The concinnus has a boat-shaped opening where the blooms push out and open in succession. The flower has three outer sepals and three inner petals. The sepals are lance-shaped, with the lower one sheathed. Two of the inner petals are joined, and the five stamens spring up out of this. The whole plant is coated in sticky white pollen. Blooming time in habitat is February through June. After the plant blooms it produces a fruit that is a long, woody structure with black seeds and fuzzy, orange fibers.
Bird of paradise is believed to be pollinated by birds and other pollinators in the rain forest. The flowers are filled with a sticky resinous pollen, which clings to birds' feet when they land on the plant. The birds go to another plant in the forest and deposit the original pollen. Seed maturity ensues. Seeds must be deposited in moist soil and may take six months to germinate. The plants can also propagate when divided. The divisions may not flower for years since the plant will only bloom when crowded. The plant also must be mature to bloom. Some of the species have white sepals, which are thought to attract pollinators in the dim of the rain forest.
The Strelitzias carry five main species. Four of these are know as the jungle type bird of paradise. The largest is Strelitzia nicholai, or white bird of paradise. The flowers are up to 12 inches long and similar in shape to the more familiar smaller plant, but white and dark-purple-to-blue in color. Mature plants can be 18 feet wide with a trunk that is similar to a palm. This species grows more like a tree than a grass-like clump. The rain forest canopy provides dappled light to this species and rich soil with plenty of moisture. Strelitzia reginae is a smaller bird of paradise grown in South Africa in forests and sub-jungle areas. The flower of Strelitza alba is white with a blue tongue. Stelitzia caudata comes to a fan shape at the crown of the plant, and the leaves have a little spur on the tip.
In the rain forests of South Africa the plant grows among other native flora under a thick canopy of trees. The lighting is semi-shady, and the soil is rich and fertile with plenty of organic humus from the canopy. Soils stay quite moist since the ground avoids the bright light of the day, and plant respiration recycles much moisture into the air. Temperatures are quite warm and humid. There is little competition on the floor of the rain forest from other lower growing species. Most plants in the rain forest stretch up high to catch the sun's rays.