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A Love Affair
by Adele Kleine - July 2015


No one knows why the heart beats faster when love suddenly strikes, but my heart suddenly rips and rocks when I hold a spectacular bird of paradise flower in my hand! The cut flower bears an uncanny resemblance to a bird in flight, especially when its orange wings are open and the straight blue and white stamens stand tall. This curious affinity has been part of my life since 1978 when I built my greenhouse and bird of paradise was only a name that fit my parameters as tropical and flowering. Little did I know that the flower was so long-lasting because, as petals become dry, you can slit the gray green pod open and pull another flower out.

There are numerous plants in the horticultural word to tempt me – curiously shaped orchids, sweetly scented roses, long-lasting succulents – but I have stayed true to my first choice. The Strelitziafamily is small, with only two species, Strelitzia reginae, known for its flowers, and Strelizia nicolai, grown for its dramatic 5-10-foot leaves. When I visited Jamaica, some years after I had already been growing bird of paradise and saw the gigantic leaves of S. nicolai, I worried that my plant would outgrow my greenhouse. Not so. (If you go to South Africa, you will see yellow-blooming birds of paradise as well.)

The glory of bird of paradise is its flower, and for flower arranging, nothing can beat it. It has no scent, but for shape, color and handsome foliage, it’s in a class by itself. The most important factor is that the flowers have direction. Wherever you place it, the end point determines the design. Using four flowers, one each aiming north, south, east and west, you have an arrangement that encompasses all the corners of the world.

The flowers have a long vase life, plus the added flower still in the bud. The bright orange bird is boat-shaped with a blue stamen, a complementary color scheme. If the flower is picked early, before it is fully open, dip it in warm water and gently work it open.

When I checked my plant diary, I noted that S. reginae is about 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide with six clumps after more than 30 years, in a 14-inch pot. At this size, the bird is like a comfortable family pet. It sits on the floor of my greenhouse in bright light where it is watered weekly and given fertilizer every few weeks. In fall and winter, I check to see if any “birds” are getting ready to bloom. In 2014 and 2015, my plant had seven or eight flowers.

In another couple of years this plant will have outgrown its pot and will need to be repotted. It is a herculean task to chop the plant apart. I don’t want it larger.

Birds are easy to grow. They need a large pot, good drainage, moderately heavy soil and good light all year. Put them outside in summer. Don’t set them in full sun if you are moving them from a basement window; they sunburn easily. They can stand some cold, such as outdoor nighttime temperatures in fall of 50 to 55 F. The buds generally form in the fall, although some form outdoors in the summer. I never see them offered for sale, so you might have to buy mail order from a tropical plant specialist. Or get acquainted with a florist who might be willing to get rid of a plant.

If you must have a bird of paradise, don’t start with a small plant as I did. It takes too long until it flowers. Look around at garden walks when someone is selling florist plants or better yet, go to Hawaii.


A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXI Issue IV. Photography by Nancy Kekst.


Adele Kleine is a master gardener and a graduate of landscape design, gardening and environmental studies through the Garden Clubs of Illinois.


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