Dear Readers, when we were wheeling Dad around the garden centre in Poundbury last week, he suddenly noticed a big pot of bird of paradise flowers, hidden away in a corner.
‘We used to have some of them!’ he said.
And he was right, we did. Although Dad left school at 14, he ended up with a job as an ‘overseas distiller’, making Gordon’s Gin all over the world. One of his regular haunts was Venezuela, and after one of his trips he brought back some Strelitzia seeds. Mum planted them up, and several years later they finally flowered, bringing a touch of the exotic to Seven Kings in Essex. What surprises me is that Strelitzias are not South American but South African; however they have been widely naturalized wherever the climate is suitable, so I suspect this is how Dad came by the seeds. In fact, they have become so ‘naturalised’ in the western USA that they are now the State Flower of Los Angeles. Go figure.
Dad was forever bringing home contraband: once, he brought home the pod from a cocoa plant, and we were horrified by how unlike chocolate the glutinous seeds tasted. Another time, he came home with some ‘Mexican Jumping Beans’ – these are seed pods inhabited by a tiny caterpillar that ‘jumps’ when the bean is heated up by the warmth of the hand. Ours actually hatched into tiny silver moths, but a call to London Zoo provided the information that the insects live for only a few days after emergence. These days I am horrified by the possible biological implications of all this transporting of live organisms, but I am touched by how Dad wanted to share his experiences with us.
Back to the Strelitzia. What a magnificent plant this is! There are five species in the genus, but the one that most of us associate with the name ‘bird of paradise flower’ is Strelitzia reginae. It is known as the crane flower in its native South Africa, and I can see why.
The flower is sunbird pollinated: the bird perches on the spathe, which is the hard covering from which the flower emerges. As the bird drinks the nectar, its feet become covered in pollen, which it transfers to the next flower. In countries with no sunbirds, the plant normally needs to be hand-pollinated. Apparently, in North America the common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) has worked out how to get at the nectar, and is in the process acting as a pollinator. I do hope that this doesn’t mean that the bird of paradise plant now becomes a rampant weed.
The genus name of the plant, Strelitzia, comes from the title of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was the wife of George III at the time the plant was first described, in 1788. She was an amateur botanist and a great supporter of Kew Gardens, which is where Strelitzia was first grown. It is not a particularly fussy plant, but it does like to be pot-bound – I remember Mum deciding to divide ours after it had flowered ‘to give it a bit more room’, and it never flowered again. The ‘normal’ orange-coloured flower might seem quite fancy enough, but there is also a golden variant, ‘Mandela’s Gold’, which looks rather fine.
Strelitzias are members of the ‘banana-leaved’ half of the ginger order (Zingiberales), and are closely related to the Heliconias that I fell in love with during my trip to Costa Rica, and to the banana. The one defining feature of the group is that it only has an aerial stem when flowering. Interestingly, another member of the Strelitzia family is the extraordinary traveller’s palm (Ravenela madagascarensis), which is endemic to Madagascar, and which normally provides a crude compass as it is oriented in an east-west direction. You would certainly not look at this plant and recognise its relationship with the bird of paradise flower, but genetics is a wonderful way of looking below the surface of things.
Strelitzia has many edible relatives (including the banana and many varieties of ginger) but the species itself is mildly toxic, particularly to domestic animals.
The artist Georgia O’Keefe was intrigued by the bird of paradise plant, which she saw in Hawaii where it commonly grows wild. She painted the giant white bird of paradise (Strelizia Nicolai) as part of a commission by the tropical fruit company, Dole, in the late 1930’s – this was a period when commercial organisations would invest in the cachet that fine artists could bring to their campaigns. Sadly, most of the paintings were of non-native species, beautiful as they are: Hawaii has lost more than ten percent of its native plants, with half of those remaining at risk.
Perhaps the most famous Strelizia artwork that I know about, however, is the self-portrait with monkeys that was painted by Frida Kahlo. She had many pets in her house, Casa Azul, in Mexico City, including these spider monkeys, which she saw as representing the children that she was not able to have following her horrific traffic accident when she was a teenager. By the time the picture was painted, she was only able to run art classes from her home, and her number of students was reduced to just four (there is some indication that the monkeys might also represent these beloved proteges). The monkeys, and the strelizia behind, indicate an artistic fecundity and transgression that was intrinsic to Kahlo’s art. I love the strangeness of the painting, the many ways that it can be ‘read’, and the uniqueness of Kahlo’s vision. What plant could possibly sum all this up better than the strelizia?
Photo One by By Scott Bauer, USDA – This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K9054-1 (next)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=327292
Photo Two by By I, Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2341086
Photo Three by By Axxter99 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35271657
Photo Four By Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas or alternatively © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30775692