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September 4, 2007 > Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise

By Pat Kite

I've been coaxing a Bird of Paradise plant for three years. My friend says hers is so big and sturdy, she can't dig it out. Strelitzia's can get really humongous, like five feet high and at least four feet wide. But that takes a quite a while. In the meantime, I want those splendid orange, yellow, blue, white and green flowers in my garden almost all year round. I want them as long-lasting vase plants in my house. In native South Africa, the name is crane flower. It even has a little birdie tuft on the flower top.

Strelitzias, in case you enjoy name history, were named after Queen [reginea in Latin] Charlotte, wife of King George III of Britain. Charlotte was born in a place called Mecklenburg-Strelitz. How fun. It's good she wasn't born in the Bronx, like me. There are several kinds of Strelitzias, including an all white version and a 10-foot-high version, the giant bird of paradise. But for the average garden, Strelitzia reginae, is the one sold in sometimes pricey 5-gallon containers in garden centers.

When I first got my one-gallon bird of paradise, I put it in semi-sun where it would have room to expand. It actually started to grow. Then a workman tromped on it. So I thought it had demised. But it didn't. One shredded leaf poked out. Then nothing happened for a whole year. So I moved it. It sat like a stump. I moved it again. One difficulty is keeping in mind that it does grow big. The other is finding a suitable spot with enough sun.

But, persistence pays. This week my do-nothing bird of paradise came up with a great big blue-green leaf. Where is it this time? In mostly sun. It is sitting in front of a potato vine, which also likes sun, and somewhat near a hydrangea that insists on avid watering. I'm told that when a full-fledged big adult, it gets by with a lot less water. Some folk grow bird of paradise in containers, which they can tote indoors in frosty weather. A lot of people grow them in pool surround gardens, as they are very neat plants.

A history tidbit: In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was trying to drum up trade between Holland and the Far East, going via the Cape of Good Hope. In 1648, one of their ships was wrecked in Table Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa. The crew waited five months for rescue. Fortunately they had a little fruit and vegetable seed with them. After returning to Holland, they urged that Table Bay, a half-way point, have a permanent garden so passing ships crews could get fresh food to prevent vitamin deficiency and scurvy. The imported gardeners grew fruits, veggies, and got interested in South African plants. So they tucked some in odd corners of the vegetable garden. Some of their discoveries: Impatiens, Calla lilies, and, of course, Bird-of-Paradise.

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