A Gardening Journal

Yellow-flowered Bird of Paradise

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The shelf of horticultural holy grails is always crowded: Black dahlias, white marigolds, yellow clivias, 'Annabelle' hydrangeas that don't flop, Southern magnolias hardy to Maine.

 

Sometimes, dreams really do come true: 'Mandela's Gold' is the first cultivar of Strelitzia reginae with flowers that are not orange.  This is the very first blossom of my young plant, which has been establishing for four years.  Unlike the species, 'Mandela's Gold' is propagated only by division, not by seed.  And Strelitzia divisions take several years to regroup.

 

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It's worth the wait.  Strelitzia flowers are large, and do everything in triplicate: Three bright sepals, the length and vivacity and slenderness of the beak of some bulimic supermodel mackaw.  Three dark-blue petals, two fused and one free; the flower has emerged just this morning, so they're not yet separated.  Three pale tips of the young stamens, which will soon become fluffy with pollen.

 

In quantity, coloring, and geometry, a bird-of-paradise blossom has a Miami-modern eccentricity far beyond that of the flowers of hardy plants.  And with 'Mandela's Gold', the only tedium—the dull orange of the sepals; really, it's not a juicy orange, so to speak, let alone an orange with fire or highlights—has been dropped in favor of this glowing yellow.  

 

Bird-of-paradise is so tough, and the species is so consistent in its orange color and iconic shape that it has become a cliché: A bullet-proof choice where it's hardy—think California, Australia—and the obligatory tropical touch in the conservatory of any botanical garden where it's not. 

 

But with 'Mandela's Gold', bird-of-paradise can now be had in yellow and blue, not orange and blue.  By changing that one color, the whole plant has become new.

 

 

Here's how to grow this singular warm-climate beauty:

Latin name

Strelitzia reginae 'Mandela's Gold'

Common name

Yellow-flowered bird-of-paradise

Family

Strelitziaceae, the Bird-of-Paradise family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen clump-forming perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 9 - 11. 

Habit

Strongly upright, with leaves similar to those of cannas or bananas, but much thicker, and born at the tops of thick vertical leaf-stalks.  The foliage is held in a dense clump, creating a solid mass of vertical foliage somewhat similar in effect to that of iris in temperate gardens. 

Rate of growth

Slow to medium.

Size in ten years

In congenial habitat, a clump four to five feet high and almost as wide.

Texture

Dense and rigid.

Grown for

its flowers:  In form and size, typical for Strelitzia, which is to say, dramatic and sui generis.  The flowers emerge one at a time from a hard, beak-like sheath, known as the spathe, that is at the top of a stalk long enough to elevate the flowers appealingly above the level of the foliage.  The flowers have three brilliant sepals, which in the flowers of 'Mandela's Gold' are, indeed, distinctly gold, and are in great contrast to the sepals of the species, which are unmistakably orange.  In the species and cultivar alike, there are three blue petals, two of which are joined together to form an arrow-like nectary.  Bird-of-paradise flowers are pollinated by sunbirds, for whom the sheath is a great perch.  The birds' feet become covered in pollen as they sit to drink the nectar.

 

 

its rarity: Before 'Mandela's Gold', only the typical orange-flowering forms of bird-of-paradise were available.

 

its durability: Bird-of-paradise plants are unusually deep-rooted (and therefore famously challenging to dig), and are very tolerant of drought, heat, and sun.  In subtropical and tropical climates where they are solidly hardy, they are every bit as permanent an addition to the garden as peonies are to gardens in temperate climates. 

Flowering season

Usually Winter into Spring, but in truly mild climates, flowering occurs sporadically throughout the year.

Color combinations

The species' orange-and-blue palette combines with its flowers' remarkable structure, size, and shape to prohibit anything but neighbors that either stick to orange and blue or go neutral.  Alas, orange and blue is its own category killer: It's so busy within itself that you can't reach over to red on the one side or yellow on the other.  Blue isn't usually much help, either, because it's the rare garden that isn't chronically short of blue already.  Worst of all, orange is a comparatively small pond to splash about in. 

 

Yellow, by contrast, is huge in itself.  Who knows why, but there are more shades of yellow featured in ornamental plants than any color other than green, and among the plants that do feature a second color as well as green, more of them feature yellow than any other color.  And they do it in more ways: buds, petals, pollen, leaves, fruit, seeds, stems, bark, and even thorns.  No other color in the garden can speak as widely, as deeply, or at such length.  Better still, yellow can slide right on over to white, another huge and diverse color.  

 

Even so, because the flowers of 'Mandela's Gold' are so exuberantly yellow-and-blue—so blissfully happy, just the two of them—the only possibility for another color is white, which is adjacent and collateral, and can seem more like incredibly pale yellow than a truly different color.  On the other side, orange would be too much: Just as orange-and-blue is content within itself, so is yellow-and-blue.  There's no room for a contrasting color, such as burgundy.  And not even in irony or deliberate bad taste could pink or rose be added.

Partner plants

The banana-like foliage, stiff upright stems, and dense clumping growth of Strelitzia reginae are so distinctive and strong that neighboring plants have a tough assignment.  If they're not a clear contrast in texture and form, they'll look like also-rans.  But if they contrast with "stiff, upright, thick, and clumping" by being fluffy and delicate, they'll look no more appropriate than lace curtains hanging in the windows of a stone castle or a steel-and-glass skyscraper.  Instead, they need to convey competitive toughness and durability even as their actual foliage might be feathery and ready to catch a breeze, their form full and well-padded. 

 

Where Strelitzia is hardy, in-ground partners could include asparagus fern; small-leaved shrubs, perennials, and succulents; drought-tolerant ornamental grasses; and, given the heavy evergreenity of Strelitzia, woody shrubs and trees that are deciduous.  As seems true with the rest of ornamental horticulture, it's impossible to go wrong by backing clumps of bird-of-paradise with a clean-lined hedge, especially one with dark green foliage: Yew in Zone 9; podocarpus in Zones 9 and 10.   

 

Where Strelitzia is tender, it's a container plant that gets summered outside.  Partner plants will still need to be strong but deferential.  And because they'll probably be in containers, too, it's easy to bring together aesthetically exciting plants that would be culturally incompatible as near-neighbors in a garden.  With everything in containers, you can go right ahead and back your bird-of-paradise with, say, papyrus, even though the former demands good drainage and the latter needs a swamp. 

 

In addition to asparagus fern and papyrus, the following partner plants square the circle of being contrasting in texture and form but the equal of any bird-of-paradise in tenacity and longevity—and they also take advantage of the yellow-and-blue palette of 'Mandela's Gold'.  In-ground bird-of-paradise clumps could front a hedge of Podocarpus macrophyllus 'Kinme', whose yellow young foliage is a call-out to the flowers of 'Mandela's Gold' and whose dark-green mature foliage is as engaging a partner to the plant's blue-green leaves.  To the front, either Rosmarinus officinalis or its gold-needled 'Aureus' cultivar would provide just the fluffy-but-no-pushover textural contrast needed.  The rosemary's blue flowers coordinate with those of 'Mandela's Gold'.  If growing 'Mandela's Gold' in the part-shade it tolerates, surround it with a groundcover of Hakonechloa 'All Gold', whose gently-nodding foliage is a match for the gold sepals of the Strelitzia.  In almost any climate, from Ottawa to San Diego, the yellow-green foliage of hollywood juniper, Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa', echoes the bird's yellow sepals, while its unique swirling branches and overall irregularity provide strong contrast to the bird's tightly-contained vertical foliage.

 

The twining and ferny growth of gold-leaved jasmine, Jasminum officinale 'Fiona's Sunrise', could be sensational if it were controlled, so that it was just ornamenting a clump of 'Mandela's Gold', not smothering it.  

Where to use it in your garden

Where hardy in-ground, Strelitzia needs to be sited for the long-term; established clumps are so deeply rooted that they are difficult to transplant or even just remove.  The species itself is so tenacious and so over-used as a result, that it has become a stalwart of hardship sites such as parking-lot planting islands and service-station landscapes.  It's also a standard ploy to sprinkle clumps throughout the landscapes of warm-climate resorts, where tourists from cold climates, where the species is still seen as a marvel, see bird-of-paradise clumps, thriving and in-ground, as proof that, yes, they really are vacationing in paradise. 

 

'Mandela's Gold' redeems bird-of-paradise as a plant worthy of knowledgeable gardeners and sophisticated schemes.  Instead of having to apologize for a clump of the species—"What to do?  That monster is impossible to dig out."—gardeners can take advantage of this cultivar's unbeatable combination of bullet-proof constitution, rarity, and more-helpful coloring to feature it instead of apologizing for it. 

 

Clumps could permanently colonize a pair of massive containers that are constructed heavily enough to withstand the thick and bulky bird-of-paradise roots.  Growth is consistent clump-to-clump, so you could also take advantage of that by planting equally-spaced colonies in a long line alongside a driveway.  Back that line that high hedge of Podocarpus, and underplant with a suitable groundcover, and the display is engaging year-round.

Culture

Bird-of-paradise deserves its reputation for being almost unkillable.  It needs little water when established, and succeeds in full sun as well as partial shade.  It flowers most enthusiastically in more generous circumstances, with regular water and feeding, plus nutritious soil to begin with.

How to handle it

In climates where the yearly cycle is more of precipitation than temperature—swinging from wet season to dry more than cool season to hot (let alone cold to hot)—plant in Fall so the plants establish in the wet season and are therefore ready for the dry one to come.  In climates where Winter temperatures are noticeably cooler than Summer, plant in Spring, and provide generous water to establish over the Summer.  Stop supplemental watering in cool weather; protection from Winter rain helps hardiness.  Strelitzia benefits from being planted under a roof overhang, which shields the plant from cold air and also cold Winter rain.  Water as needed in Spring and Summer.  In any climate, Strelitzia appreciates excellent drainage, and requires it to overwinter successfully at the cooler end of its hardiness range.

 

Remove spent foliage and flowerstalks when needed; the stalks will need to be cut, but you may be able to pull off spent leaves.  Clumps don't need division and, should it happen, show their resentment by taking several years to return to their previous level of flowering.   

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

Containered clumps need to be moved into shelter where the climate is colder than Zone 9.  Strelitzia survives mild frosts, but is slow to recover from them.  If your overwintering shelter is warm and sunny, keep watering as needed, and continue to fertilize the clump monthly.  The clump often blooms better in slightly cooler and shorter-day months. 

 

If, like me, the goal of your overwintering is solely to keep plants alive, not to keep them in active growth, your shelter will probably be cooler at night, and will not have supplemental lighting.  Water the clump sparingly, and only if it seems quite dry or you just can't stand to not water it any longer.  By late February, days will be longer, and your shelter will heat up more during the day.  Increase watering a bit, especially if the clump becomes more active by growing new leaves or—hooray!—sending up a flower stalk.  Water and fertilize regularly when you're confident the clump has revived, but don't drag the pot back outside until all danger of frost is past. 

Quirks and special cases

Containered plants thrive for years without division.  It's more often the case that the slowly-expanding clump causes the container to fail, and so needs repotting.  Containered birds-of-paradise can become very heavy; you'll soon find the upper limit of pot weight and overall size that you can realistically shuttle outside for the Summer, and back into shelter for the Winter.  To avoid repotting in ever-larger containers, practice "defensive" division.  Before the container fails, unpot the clump.   Using old pairs of pruners and loppers that are too dull for use on branches, cut through the roots and rhizomes of the clump with the goal, not of dividing it to make more clumps, but to reduce the size of whatever seems the most lively portion by slicing away older or thinner portions.  Aim for only a modest decrease in colony width; for a large old clump, a reduction of four inches overall is fine.  That gives you two inches all around when you repot; splurge and fill that space just with compost, not a compost and soil mix.

 

Unless your overwintering shelter is warm and sunny enough for the colony to stay active throughout the cold months, don't do defensive repotting, let alone intentional division, until the clump has revived in late Winter or early Spring.

Downsides

Given the thrill of the flowers, more is more.  And that means multiple flowering stalks at once, which means a fairly large and heavy clump.  It's difficult to resist further potting-up of containered bird-of-paradise clumps, until you have an awkwardly heavy monster to move into shelter each Winter.  And repotting a bird-of-paradise is, inevitably, an energetic and full-body activity.  You'll need to be up for it.

Variants

Despite being planted by the millions world-wide since its introduction to European horticulture in 1773, no cultivars of Strelitzia reginae had even been contemplated before the yellow-flowered precursors of 'Mandela's Gold' appeared spontaneously two centuries later. 

 

Giant Bird-of-Paradise, Strelitzia nicolai, will look to most viewers like a multi-trunked banana, and one of such thick growth and numerous stems that it must have been seriously overdoing steroids.  The enormous ghostly-white flowers emerge from dark-blue spathes, but because the spathes are held at the base of the top-knot of foliage instead of above it, as is so showily the case with S. reginae, the flowers of S. nicolai are only noticeable at close-range.   

 

S. juncea has the orange flowers of S. reginae, but its leafblades are upright and cylindrical, and look like those of a species of the grass-like rushes, the Juncaceae family.

Availability

On-line and, where solidly hardy, at "destination" retailers.

Propagation

By division.  Do this in Autumn or Winter where the plants are fully hardy and growing without supplemental water.  Containered specimens are best divided in late Winter.

Native habitat

All species of Strelitzia are native to South Africa.  'Mandela's Gold' is the result of twenty years of selection and hand-pollination involving a group of yellow-flowered plants that, in the 1970s, appeared spontaneously amid a population of the usual orange-flowered clumps at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Capetown, South Africa.

 
 
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