Its real name is Strelitzia reginae (why do these plants have names that are so hard to spell, let alone say?), but apparently it is a plant of nobility, a queen of flora, having been named after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen consort and wife of King George III. Queen Charlotte was a patron of the arts and an amateur botanist and helped to expand Kew Gardens.
It also has the nickname Crane Flower, but I think Bird of Paradise sounds much more exotic and tropical, and indeed they look like the birds they are named after. With a tufty head and an uncannily realistic beak, it is a dramatic bloom, a real showstopper in its own right. It is actually native to South Africa, but conditions in Portugal are ideal, where it will grow well in full sun, and will even tolerate light salt spray and winds, but they don’t do so well in the cold, so would do well in a sheltered position.
I very much want one of these in my garden, with their flamboyant flowers that come in a shock of orange, yellow, blue and red against tall, dense, grey-green or blue-green leaves that are reminiscent of banana leaves. The splits that appear in the leaves are normal and are the plant adapting to more damaging winds by becoming ‘aerodynamic’ - to prevent the leaves from becoming giant sails.
It is a relatively small plant with a manageable height of 5-6 ft when mature, but be warned, they may not bloom until they are 5-6 years old if you have just put a small one into a pot or in the garden. The good news is they can be divided up in-ground every 5 years or so, giving you free plants to put in elsewhere! The plant grows from a rhizome, and all you need to do in the spring is sever a piece of the rhizome with a clean sharp knife, with each division having a fan and roots attached.
Just plant into a good growing medium, but leave the ‘cut’ to heal for a few days before watering.
Another species, Strelitzia juncea, is a bold drought resistant variety and has a similar bird-like flower, but with narrow reed-like stalks – without any leaf litter! It can grow up to 4ft or more and is equally useful for container planting or as part of a landscape.
They aren’t hard to look after either with minimal care, just watering when the topsoil becomes dry, but don’t overwater, and trim dead leaves and blooms to the ground when necessary. They will just need growing space as they will grow outwards in width, and in fact, they don’t mind being crowded into a container, so provided they have good drainage, they would look stunning on a terrace or patio in a big deep pot.
There are two other types of Strelitzia – Alba (known as a Cape wild banana) and Nicolai, (more commonly known as a giant bird of paradise) - that have white to cream coloured flowers, but are more tree-like and grow to enormous heights - think 20ft or more, and would be more at home as a dramatic landscaping feature.
There is a further species, Strelitzia caudata, which mainly grows in the wild, so if you ever visit the stunning mountains of southern Africa, keep your eye out for this one!
A word of warning to pet owners - the plant is toxic to dogs, cats and horses. Flower seeds contain toxic tannins and the leaves can contain hydrocyanic acid. Signs of poisoning will include laboured breathing, eye discharge and digestive discomfort, so speak to your vet should you have any suspicions. If you have a plant-chewer in the family, this might be a plant you should perhaps consider giving a miss. But if you can grow it, you will be well-rewarded by bringing an exotic and elegant touch to your garden!