Plant 226

Strelitzia reginae Banks (Strelitziaceae)


Bird-of-paradise flower

Native to the eastern coast of South Africa, from Humansdorp to northern KwaZulu-Natal, Strelitzia reginae was introduced into Britain in 1773. In 1772, Francis Masson, a Scottish botanist, who started work at the Royal Gardens at Kew in the 1760s as an under-gardener, had been selected by Joseph Banks, de facto head of the garden at the time, to travel to South Africa with Captain Cook on HMS Resolution and collect plants. Strelitzia reginae was one of more than 500 newly discovered species that he sent back to England.

Banks 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; the specific epithet reginae means 'of the queen'. The plant's common names, bird-of-paradise or crane flower, are references to the exotic orange and blue flowers that look like crests on birds' heads.

Naturally occurring in coastal bush and thicket, along riverbanks and on forest margins, Strelitzia reginae is a herbaceous, evergreen, acaulescent (stemless) plant, growing from a rhizome (underground stem) with fleshy, finger-like roots. The blue-green, banana-like leaves are distichous (opposite and arranged fan-like in one plane), with individual plants reaching 1.5 metres in height and two metres in diameter.

Each striking flower head is an inflorescence composed of four to six flowers that emerge successively from a stiff, horizontal, greenish-pink, beak-like bract (modified leaf). The flower comprises six showy parts: three upright orange outer parts and three blue inner parts.

The blue inner parts are highly modified; two are joined together in a structure that resembles an arrowhead and the third forms a nectary at the flower base. White anthers emerge from the top of the arrowhead and when a pollinator, usually a sunbird or weaverbird, lands on the arrowhead in search of the thick, sticky nectar, pollen is deposited on the bird's feet or breast. Birds also assist in seed distribution; the black seeds have an intense orange aril (an outgrowth from the seed), an edible enticement.

Widely used in landscaping in warm temperate climates and as a conservatory or pot plant where temperatures fall below freezing, Strelitzia reginae is also popular in the cut-flower trade. In its native home, strained decoctions of the inflorescence have been used by the abakwaMthethwa clan in KwaZulu-Natal to treat inflamed glands and venereal diseases, whilst the seeds are used in the Cape to sour milk.

Further reading

Brown SP and Black RJ 2016. Bird-of-paradise. University of Florida.

Mills C et al. 2016. The botanical treasury. André Deutsch Limited.

Xaba P and Van der Walt L 2011. Strelitzia reginae. South African National Biodiversity Institute.

Louisa Hall