The distinctive Strelitzia (bird of paradise) is one of the best known of all the tropical flowers and is a cousin to the banana. Surprisingly, the bird of paradise is easier to grow than many tropical plants. The plant is a vigorous, rapidly growing indoor plant. It can be moved outside in the summer, and in warmer climes, it thrives for half the year outside. Bird of paradise typically flowers in the late winter or early spring, but under optimal conditions, it flowers at other times.
There are five Strelitzia species, but only two are grown as indoor plants: Strelitzia reginae (the orange bird of paradise) and Strelitzia nicolai (the white bird of paradise). These plants grow with upright leaves emerging directly from the soil; there is no trunk. The large leaves range between 12 and 18 inches long, and they can shred when exposed to windy conditions or when brushed in a busy hallway.
S. reginae and S. nicolai are beautiful plants that can be successfully grown inside. The biggest drawbacks are their size—they grow to 5 to 6 feet tall—and the fact that the plants need three to five years before they flower. They work well in massed plantings outside or as specimen plants in warm climates, where their flowers rise above the foliage for an impressive display.
The trick to successful growth indoors is providing lots of bright light with some direct sun, regular waterings and warmth. Feed with compost early in spring before new growth begins and then fertilize every week or so during the growing season. For the best chance of survival, grow the plant in a container that can be moved outside in warm summer months and then brought back inside for winter.
To bring the plant to bloom once it is four to five years old, keep it pot-bound. Give it plenty of sun and feed it on schedule. Note: The plant is mildly toxic to dogs, cats, and people, but it takes eating quite a bit of it to have an effect.
Attention to the basics keeps this showpiece in the best health.
- Light: This plant needs bright light, even including some direct sunlight, to bloom well. However, it requires shielding in direct midday summer sun, which can burn the leaves of younger plants. A good position is in a room with windows facing east or west. Avoid rooms with only a north-facing window.
- Water: Keep the soil continually moist throughout the year. You don't want it to be waterlogged, but you can expect to need to water it daily in the spring and summer as it loses moisture through its big leaves. Bird of paradise prefers high humidity and you might want to keep a spray bottle handy to mist it if your home is dry. If overwatered the plant will develop crunchy brown leaves. If underwatered the leaves farthest from the center will turn yellow.
- Temperature: Keep the air temperature above 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. This is not a cold-tolerant plant, and it recovers slowly from frost damage.
- Soil: Use rich, well-drained potting mix.
- Fertilizer: Feed in the springtime with slow-release pellets or weekly during growing season with liquid fertilizer. This plant is a heavy feeder.
Bird of paradise is easy to propagate by division of the underground rhizome when you repot it. Separate a shoot with at least three leaves. It can be grown from seed, but division is easier. It can take months for the seeds to germinate. Divide infrequently because crowded clumps produce the most blooms.
These are rapidly-growing plants that need to reach a certain size before they'll bloom. Repot every spring into a somewhat larger pot. A bird of paradise that is 3 to 4 feet tall grows well in a 10-inch pot. A 5- to 7-foot plant usually thrives in a 14-inch pot. Once it reaches maturity, you will want it to be pot-bound so it will bloom. If you repot it, you will disrupt the bloom cycle.
Monitor the plant for aphids, scale, and mites. If you see them, use insecticidal soap for control, but be sure to apply it to the underside of the leaves. Bird of paradise is also susceptible to Botrytis cinerea (gray mold). Flowers and leaves with this condition will develop dark spots and then a layer of gray mold. Remove the affected parts of the plant and give your plant regular airing.