History of the Bird of Paradise

Overview

The bird of paradise flower also goes by the name of crane flower, and it is native to South Africa. This herbaceous plant blooms almost all year long and is classified as a perennial. In nature, it is the sunbird (Nectariniidae) that drinks the nectar stored in the base of the plant's flowers and distributes its pollen far and wide. However, it is the bird of paradise that receives name credit for the beautiful flowers that result.

Origins

The flower's bright orange sepals and blue petals are shaped like the crest of a bird's head. By way of a preface to the flower story, its avian namesake is native to New Guinea and is known for its colorful and exotic plumage. In 1522, the lone surviving ship of the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan returned to Spain, bearing a gift for the king, of exotic bird of paradise skins. By the 19th century, imports to Europe and America of bird of paradise skins and feathers numbered in the thousands, to the point where some Paradisaeidae species may have become extinct. Many species are now listed for protection under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species.

Introduction to England and Europe

The preservation of the bird of paradise flower owes much to the distinguished English botanist and explorer, Sir Joseph Banks ((1743 to 1820). Banks is credited with the introduction to England and Europe of the bird of paradise flower as well as many other valuable plant species, including eucalyptus, acacia and mimosa. Banks' in-depth botanical knowledge and discoveries of plant species in the course of his travels made him eminently suited to his unofficial role as adviser to the Royal Gardens at Kew.

Formalization

In 1773, Banks formally introduced the bird of paradise flower at the Kew Gardens. He gave it the scientific name "Strelitzia reginae." The name honored the former duchess of the German principality of Mecklenburgh-Strelitz, who became Queen Charlotte (1744 to 1818) when she married King George III of England in 1761. Banks was a friend of the king and was tasked with suitably stocking Kew Gardens. Today, Kew is the foremost storehouse of botanical species. Queen Charlotte took a great interest in the progress of Kew Gardens and was dubbed "queen of botany" by the British people.

At Kew

Strelitzia has continued to play an important part in the ongoing history of Kew Gardens. In 1979, the bird of paradise was the first plant installed in the newly restored South Block of the Temperate House. In 1991, a yellow-flowered bird of paradise, "Kirstenbosch Gold," was presented to Kew Gardens by the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, the leading botanical garden in South Africa. This species flowered for the first time in public in 1992.

In America

Today, different species of the Strelitziaceae family of plants are grown commercially and shipped worldwide. They are ideally suited to warm, tropical climates such as that of Hawaii and Florida in the United States, as well as California. The bird of paradise is, in fact, the official flower of the city of Los Angeles.

Keywords: bird of paradise, Sir Joseph Banks, Kew Gardens London

About this Author

Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for over 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in Stanislaus Magazine, Orientations, The Asia Magazine, and The Peninsula Group Magazine, among others. She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.