The white bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia nicolai), or giant bird-of-paradise, looks like a banana plant but is in fact closely related to the more common bird-of-paradise plant (Strelitzia regina). Adult plants also resemble the Madagascan traveler palm (Ravenala madagascariensis). The large flowers are pollinated by birds, especially sunbirds, and produce copious amounts of nectar to attract them.
A large plant that can grow up to 30 feet high, the white bird-of-paradise forms dense clumps 20 feet across. The dark green, paddle-shaped leaves are borne in a fan on top of the stems and can be 8 feet long. It produces large and showy, boat-shaped inflorescences which can be 18 inches long and grow on short stalks out from the base of the leaf fan. The blooms have a bluish-purple bract with protruding white sepals and a blue, tongue-like stamen. The flowers give way to small, triangular seed pods containing black seeds with an orange tuft or hairs.
Range and Habitat
The white bird-of-paradise is found in eastern South Africa from the Great Fish River to Richards Bay in Natal and the Eastern Cape provinces. There is a similar species (Strelitzia alba) growing further north in South Africa. In its natural range it grows in dense coastal forest and in dune scrub.
The white bird-of-paradise will tolerate brief, light frosts, but the leaves are permanently damaged by temperatures of 28 degrees F or lower. It is suitable as an outdoor garden plant in USDA Zones 9 and above. Plant in rich soils with plenty of organic matter for water retention and choose a site with partial shade or at least protection from the midday sun. Feed regularly with a liquid fertilizer to maximize growth and encourage leaf formation. The roots of the white bird of paradise are destructive and the plant should not be grown within 6 feet of buildings or fences.
Mature plants will generate suckers which can be cut free from the parent plant and grown in pots once they have several leaves. Large clumps can be dug up and divided at the roots, although this will slow down the growth of the plant for at least a year. The white bird-of-paradise can also be grown from seed, but these can take up to 24 months to germinate and seedlings will not flower for a minimum of five years.
Despite being very attractive, their short stalks mean that white bird-of-paradise flowers are seldom used in the cut flower trade. In South Africa, dried leaves were traditionally used to make rope, and the immature seeds were eaten. White bird-of-paradise plants can be grown in large containers and make excellent indoor plants for large displays such as inside malls and hotel lobbies.