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Strelitzia reginae (bird-of-paradise flower)

A bold, architectural plant, the bird-of-paradise flower has been grown at Kew since 1773.

Bird of paradise flower

Strelitzia reginae (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Strelitzia reginae

Common name: 

bird-of-paradise flower, crane flower

Conservation status: 

Not currently on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Habitat: 

River banks and scrub clearings in coastal areas.

Known hazards: 

None known.

Taxonomy

Sub class: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Zingiberales
Family: 
Strelitziaceae
Genus: Strelitzia

About this species

The bird-of-paradise flower, or crane flower as it is sometimes known, was first introduced into Britain in 1773 by Sir Joseph Banks, then the unofficial director of the Royal Gardens at Kew (as they were known at that time). He named the exotic-looking plant Strelitzia in honour of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III and Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who lived at Kew for many years.

Genus: 
Strelitzia

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Strelitzia reginae is native to the southern and eastern parts of the Cape Province and northern Natal in South Africa. It has been introduced into parts of central and tropical South America and is widely cultivated as an ornamental.

Description

Fruits of Strelitzia reginae (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Reaching a height of 1.2 m, Strelitzia reginae plants consist of clumps of greyish-green leaves, with long stalks and broad oval blades, arising from an underground stem (rhizome). The plant gets its common name from the exotic appearance of the inflorescence (flowering head). Emerging from a horizontal green and pink boat-shaped bract (a leaf-like structure) in slow succession, the flowers look like the crest on a bird's head.

Each flower comprises three, upright, orange outer tepals and three, highly modified, vivid blue inner tepals. Two of the inner tepals are joined together in a structure resembling an arrowhead with the third tepal forming a nectary at the base of the flower. The stamens have long thin filaments surrounded by the arrowhead structure with whitish anthers that emerge from the top of the arrowhead. When a pollinator, usually a bird, lands on the arrowhead in search of the copious nectar, the anthers are levered clear of the flower and pollen is deposited on the feet or breast of the pollinator, which then carries the pollen to another flower.

Seeds of Strelitzia reginae (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)

The fruit is a leathery capsule containing numerous small seeds, each with an orange aril (an outgrowth from the seed similar to the red sheath (mace) around fresh nutmeg seeds) and an oil body, possibly attractive to birds which may help to distribute the seeds.

Uses

Bird-of-paradise flower is highly-prized and widely cultivated as an ornamental. The flowers are good for cutting and make an exotic addition to floral displays. Individual flowers last for about a week, but a single boat-shaped bract will produce several flowers in succession. When not in flower, the plant still has a striking appearance due to the large glaucous leaves which resemble those of banana plants.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 197.96 g
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One

Cultivation

Strelitzia retinae at the British Museum (Image: Richard Wilford)

In Britain, bird-of-paradise flower cannot usually be grown outside as it requires a minimum temperature of 10°C. During the winter, the plants should be kept almost dry but in summer they need plenty of water. A suitable compost can be made from one part loam, one and a half parts coir, one part grit and one part bark. The plants require regular feeding. Flowering occurs in spring and early summer and can be encouraged by keeping the plants slightly pot-bound.

Hand-pollination is necessary to produce seeds, but this seldom works. For germination and initial growth, the seeds need bottom-heat of at least 21°C. Some new stocks of seed-raised plants can reach flowering size in two to three years, but individual specimens may take up to ten years. Due to the difficulty of producing seeds, Strelitzia reginae is usually propagated by dividing the plants or using suckers produced at the base. Mature plants should not be re-potted too often, as the fleshy roots can easily be damaged by disturbance.

Bird-of-paradise flower at Kew

'Strelitzia and Sugar Birds' painted by Marianne North

Strelitzia reginae is grown in the south block of the Temperate House (known as the Mexican House until 1977). It was the first plant to be replaced in the newly restored Temperate House in 1979. Grown here are typical S. reginae with small lanceolate leaf-blades (tapering at both ends); 'Kirstenbosch Gold', a superb yellow-flowered form, as well as S. juncea, an interesting species with reed-like leaves from a limited area on the eastern Cape coast.

The 'Kirstenbosch Gold' plants were presented to Kew in 1991 by Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, the leading botanic garden in South Africa, and flowered for the first time at Kew in 1992. Since 1880, similar forms have made brief appearances in cultivation and 'Citrina' flowered in the Mexican House in 1914.

Other strelitzias in the same area of the Temperate House include the 10 m tall S. nicolai, named after the Russian emperor Nicholas I, with its striking blue and white flowers. A native of the coastal regions of Natal, eastern Cape Province, Mozambique and Botswana, this species was first planted in this block when it opened in 1899 and was replaced with a new specimen when the House was restored. Also on display is the very rare S. alba, from the south coast of Cape Province, with its showy white flowers.

In 1909, S. x kewensis, a hybrid between S. reginae and S. alba, flowered at Kew for the first time, producing pale watery yellow flowers. Unfortunately it now seems to have disappeared from cultivation.

Preserved specimens of S. reginae can be seen in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. The details, including images, of some pressed and dried specimens can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.

South Africa Landscape - Kew at the British Museum

Between April and October 2010, Kew and the British Museum brought a small corner of South Africa to the heart of London.

The South Africa Landscape celebrated a shared vision to strengthen cultural understanding and support biodiversity conservation across the world.

Strelitzia reginae (bird-of-paradise flower) was one of the star plants featured in the Landscape.

References and credits

Beckett, K. A. (1987). The RHS Encyclopaedia of House Plants. Century Hutchinson.

Dyer, R. A. (1975). The status of Strelitzia juncea. Bothalia 11 (4): 519-520.

Everard, B. & Morley, B. (1970). Wild Flowers of the World. Peerage Books.

Foster, R. (1983). The Gardener's Guide to Rare, Exotic and Difficult Plants. David and Charles.

Heywood, V. H. (1978). Flowering Plants of the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1992). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. Vol. 4 (R to Z): 386-387. Macmillan Press, London.

Moore, H. E. & Hyypio, P. A. (1970). Some comments on Strelitzia (Strelitziaceae). Baileya 17 (2): 64-74.

Perry, F. & Greenwood, L. (1987). Flowers of the World. Spring Books.

Van de Venter, H. A., Small, J. G. C. & Roberts, P. J. (1975). Notes on the distribution and comparative leaf morphology of the acaulescent species of Strelitzia Ait.. Journal of South African Botany 41 (1): 1-16.

Kew Science Editor: Dave Simpson
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group), Andrew Luke
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions. Full website terms and conditions.

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