If you are looking for a plant with large, show-stopping blooms, look no further than the bird of paradise.
With its orange, blue, and white flowers that look like a bird in flight, this plant just cannot be ignored.
And this South African native will grow happily year-round throughout warmer parts of the US.
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Ready to get started? I’ll explain everything you need to know to grow vigorous bird of paradise plants in your own garden in Zones 9-12.
Here’s what’s ahead:
What You’ll Learn
What Is Bird of Paradise?
This herbaceous perennial is rare in northern climates, but prevalent in gardens and on roadsides in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-12 and sometimes in warmer areas of Zone 9 as well.
Named for its stunning flowers, the plant grows slowly in clumps as its underground stem divides, while the foliage grows in a fan-like pattern and resembles banana leaves.
Flowers are produced in groups of one to three on long stalks.
Bird of paradise plants are also known as crane flowers, a more precise description of the shape of their blooms.
Orange sepals and blue petals emerge from a modified leaf known as a bract. Two of the blue petals join together to form a nectary – an organ that secretes nectar.
The plants bloom off and on year round in suitable climates.
Mature, healthy plants can produce up to 36 flower spikes a year, which will last for weeks.
Native to southern Africa, there are five species in the Strelizia genus. The most common species grown in the US are S. reginae, S. nicolai, and S. alba.
If you live in the southwestern US, you may be familiar with other plants known by the same common name.
The birds of paradise that grow so well in this region are an entirely different species in the legume family, Caesalpinia.
The three most commonly seen are the red C. pulcherrima, yellow C. gilliesii (reclassified as Poinciana gilliesii), and the Mexican bird of paradise, C. mexicana.
Cultivation and History
Once considered part of the banana family, these plants have escaped this lowly fate and now have their own family – the Strelitziaceae.
Bird of paradise flowers are so storied that they were a recipient of the Award of Garden Merit from the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society in 1993.
They are delightful as cut flowers and are sold by the million for use in floral arrangements.
These plants are low maintenance which makes them valuable for urban landscaping. They are commonly seen growing in traffic islands and in gardens in apartment complexes in California.
Even better is their tendency to stay put. Unlike tree roots that will eventually lift sidewalks, bird of paradise roots do not thicken as the plants age.
Bird of paradise plants were introduced to Europe in 1773 when Francis Masson, plant collector, brought specimens from the eastern Cape region of South Africa to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.
The genus Strelitzia was named for Queen Charlotte Sophie of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of the reigning monarch at the time, King George III.
Even the scientific name of the common bird of paradise, S. reginae, is regal, with the Latin word reginae translating to queen in English.
Bird of paradise plants were introduced into California in 1853 by Colonel Warren, editor of the California Farmer magazine, and were available for sale in Montecito, a wealthy enclave of Santa Barbara in the 1870s.
These plants became such emblems of southern California that in 1952 they were named the official flower of the city of Los Angeles by Mayor Fletcher Bowron.
In their native South Africa, the flower is so popular that it is featured on the coat of arms of the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
It also adorns the emblem of a high South African honor – the Order of the Ikhamanga. The president of South Africa has the power to grant this honor to citizens for achievements in literature, culture, arts, journalism, music, and sports.
Bird of paradise plants grow wild among other shrubs along riverbanks in many parts of South Africa, and are important sources of nectar for birds.
Growing bird of paradise plants from seed can take three to 10 years, but propagating them by division produces new plants much more quickly.
You can dig up mature clumps in late spring or early summer and divide those with four to five shoots or more into single- or multiple-stem divisions.
Depending on the size of the clump, you’ll need to mark a radius eight to 12 inches out from the base of the plant, and dig down to a depth of 10 to 24 inches. Pull up the plant and cut through the root ball cleanly with a gardening knife or shovel.
If the plant is growing in a container, lift it out of the pot, and cut through the root ball with a sharp knife. Make sure each section has at least one stem attached.
Plant each division in the ground at the same depth as the section of root ball or into a pot eight to 12 inches wide and deep – or larger – depending on the size of your division.
Keep the soil moist for at least three months until the roots are established. Then, if desired, you can start fertilizing them as described below.
You should have mature flowering plants in one to three years.
Another option is to remove young offshoots from mature plants.
Learn more about how to divide perennials in this guide.
If you are patient, you can grow these plants from seeds. Your plants should start blooming in three to five years.
However, some sources claim that it can take as long as 10 years for plants that were started from seed to bloom.
Saving your own seeds from mature plants is an option, but if the plants are hybrids the seeds will not produce true to the parent plant.
If you hand pollinate the flowers, you should see seed pods about five months later. Each pod will contain 60-80 seeds.
When the flower has withered and died back, you can collect the pods and cut them open to remove the seeds inside.
The seeds are black with orange tufts and are the size of sweet pea seeds.
Plant the seeds as soon after harvest as possible, before the seed coat becomes hard.
If you can’t sow them immediately, planting within six months of harvest is recommended to ensure viability.
If you need to store the seeds, place them in a cool, well ventilated room until the seeds have completely dried out – typically a week to ten days – then transfer to a paper envelope and store in a cool, dry place until you are ready to plant.
If the seed coat is hard, whether you’ve saved your own seeds or purchased them, you can decrease the germination time by soaking the seeds in lukewarm water for one to two days, and then nicking the seed coat with a small file or knife. This process is known as scarification.
Remove the bright orange tuft of hairs after you have soaked the seeds.
Sow the seeds 1/2 to one inch deep in a pot or planting tray in a moist seed starting medium that is loose and clean. Place a plastic bag or humidity dome over the top to maintain a humid environment.
Providing bottom heat of 75-90°F will help them to germinate, although it is not necessary.
Seeds that have been scarified should germinate in one to three months if kept moist.
According to Sydney Park Brown and Robert J. Black, professors at the Environmental Horticulture Department at the University of Florida IFAS Extension, you may be able to speed up the germination time by putting the seeds in a plastic bag and refrigerating them at 40-45°F for two weeks. Then scarify them.
The seedlings can be transplanted to six-inch pots when they have three to four true leaves.
Keep the soil evenly moist but not waterlogged until seedlings are six to eight inches tall before transplanting them into the garden as described below.
How to Grow
While this plant originates in the subtropical coasts of South Africa, it will grow in the warmer climates of Zones 9-12.
Birds of paradise should be planted in a full sun location, although they can thrive in partial shade in subtropical climates such as Florida.
The characteristics of the plants will differ depending on the amount of light they receive.
Plants grown in full sun are smaller and have shorter flower stems, while those grown in partial shade are taller and may have somewhat larger flowers.
Since the plants produce more flowers around the outside of the plant, spacing them at least six feet apart will allow adequate room for the flowers to develop.
To transplant into the garden, dig a hole that is two to three times the diameter of the root ball and as deep as the height of the root ball. Thoroughly water the plant before gently removing it from the container.
Take care not to disturb the roots as those of young plants are easily damaged.
Place the plant in the hole, and make sure the top of the root ball is even with the surface of the soil. Backfill with soil and water in well.
If bird of paradise is planted too deeply, this may delay flowering.
You can create a basin like a saucer around the plant, so it will hold water until it drains to the roots.
Make sure to water the plant regularly during the first six months after planting. Water deeply when the surface of the soil feels dry to the touch.
Soil and Climate Needs
Bird of paradise plants are pretty forgiving and will grow in a range of soil types.
However, they grow best in organically-rich, loamy soil that drains well with a pH of 5.5-7.5.
The plants can briefly tolerate temperatures as low as 24°F, although freezing temperatures will damage developing flowers and buds.
If you live in an area prone to freezes, either cover your plants if a hard freeze is in the forecast, or bring pots inside when the weather gets cold.
Watering and Mulching
If this type of plant receives too much or too little moisture, the leaves will turn yellow and eventually die.
Mature plants are generally drought tolerant and will need to be watered when the top three inches of the soil is dry. They will not tolerate wet feet and waterlogged soil can cause root rot.
During the winter months, if there is sufficient rain, you may not need to provide any additional irrigation.
Place a two to three-inch-deep layer of mulch around the base of the plant. This will help to conserve moisture, reduce weed infestations, and provide micronutrients.
Do not add mulch too close to the stem. Keeping a two to three-inch circular area around your plants free of mulch will protect against stem rot.
Organic mulches – such as wood chips, bark, pine needles, or leaves – are suitable, as are crushed stone or gravel in areas where lighter materials may blow away.
While these plants can live in the garden without supplemental fertilization, the addition of a balanced fertilizer will produce the best growth and flowering.
The best types of fertilizer to use include organic ones like well-rotted manure, worm castings, or blood meal, or a controlled release balanced product like Osmocote, available via Amazon, or granular landscape fertilizers.
Apply according to package instructions to a full grown clump every three months during the growing season.
If you are growing your plants in containers, you can fertilize them every two weeks with a liquid fertilizer or apply slow release pellets every two to three months.
- Plant in a full sun or part shade location.
- Provide organically-rich, well-draining soil.
- Water mature plants deeply when the soil is dry to a depth of three inches.
Pruning and Maintenance
These plants are fairly low maintenance.
The most important thing that you will need to do in terms of upkeep is to remove the dead leaves and old flower stalks, so that fungi do not build up in them.
Spent flower stalks can be cut off at the base of the plant, as close to the soil line as possible. Dead or dying foliage should be cut at the point the leaf meets the stem.
If you do not prune them off, they will remain attached to the plant indefinitely.
In the case of large clumps, you can thin out the foliage from the center of the clump to allow for increased airflow.
The giant bird of paradise, S. nicolai, produces dense offshoots that you should thin occasionally.
Where to Buy
You can usually find birds of paradise for sale at local garden centers and nurseries in areas where they thrive.
Common Bird of Paradise
Known and beloved by so many throughout the world, the orange and blue flowers of S. reginae are a dramatic addition to your landscape.
You can find one- to two-feet-tall plants in one gallon containers available via Amazon.
S. nicolai is common in south and central Florida. It is also known as giant white bird of paradise or African wild banana – thanks to its large leaves.
This species can grow up to 20 feet high and five to six feet wide, so do not mistake it for the common bird of paradise and plant it in front of a window!
Plants in 9 1/4-inch pots are available from Costa Farms via Home Depot.
As you can probably guess from the name, ‘Mandela’s Gold’ is a South African cultivar of S. reginae. It was produced by John Winter at the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in Cape Town and released in 1994.
Originally marketed as ‘Kirstenbosch Gold,’ the name was changed in 1996 to honor Nelson Mandela.
The flowers have bright yellow petals and a blue tongue. Plants grow to a mature height of four to five feet tall, with a similar spread.
You can learn more about the different types of bird of paradise plants here.
Managing Pests and Disease
Bird of paradise plants are usually free of pests and diseases, but alas, there are exceptions.
However, while pests and pathogens may attack individual flowers or leaves, they generally do not threaten the plant’s overall health.
Mealybugs and spider mites can infest the leaves. Just wipe them off with a soft cloth. You also have the option of using organic insecticides like neem oil to tackle an infestation.
A couple of additional species in particular may cause problems for your plants:
Opogona Crown Borers
The larvae of Opogona omoscopa moths bore into the crowns of plants, causing the foliage to turn yellow, wilt, and die. Experts believe these are secondary pests that are attracted to decaying tissue.
You can prevent this type of infestation by providing good cultural care. Remove dead or dying plant debris that attracts the moths and avoid excessive watering.
While there are a number of whitefly species that attack plants, the giant whitefly (Aleurodicus dugesii) is a particular pest of bird of paradise.
Not only does this pest suck vital nutrients out of the plant, it also secretes a sugary substance called honeydew that can draw copious amounts of ants.
Early detection is important for the control of this pest. If you catch it early enough, you can spray the plants with water from the hose to remove the whiteflies.
If your plants have a severe infestation, remove any infected leaves.
Several types of fungi and a common bacterial pathogen can occasionally afflict bird of paradise plants.
Armillaria Root Rot
This devastating disease can affect all members of the Strelitzia genus.
Discolored leaves are a symptom of Armillaria. Eventually, telltale clusters of what are commonly referred to as “honey mushrooms” will grow at the base of the plant.
There is no cure, and fungal colonies can live for thousands of years. You will have to remove your plant if it contracts this disease.
Prevention includes proper drainage, good irrigation, and adequate care.
The common bacterium Pseudomonas solanacearum can live in the soil for more than six years, and it may infect bird of paradise plants through their roots.
It can also be transmitted by infected gardening tools, plant debris, soil, insects, and water.
Initial signs of infection include wilting and yellowing of the leaves. Then, the base of the plant will begin to turn black or brown at the soil line.
If your plant is infested, you should remove and destroy it to prevent the disease from spreading.
Fungal Leaf Spot
For a nice change of pace, this type of infection – caused by a variety of fungal pathogens – is not usually a serious problem for bird of paradise plants.
Leaves that are infected develop black, tan, brown, or yellow spots or patches. They may wither and drop off the plant.
Most bird of paradise plants can handle this disease. In fact, the picture of this infection that you see above depicts an otherwise healthy plant.
Providing good cultural care and sanitation will usually help to control a fungal leaf spot infection. If necessary, you can spray plants with neem oil every 10-14 days.
Also known as botrytis blight, gray mold caused by Botrytis cinerea can infect an array of plants and is well known as the cause of rot in strawberries.
Infected flowers and leaves will have a gray film over them, which gives disease its common name. Eventually, the leaves will wilt, decay, and drop from the plant.
Prevention includes removing fallen and decaying debris and dying plant tissue. Also, avoid overhead watering.
Fungicides are sometimes effective, but this fungus is notorious for developing resistance to them – sometimes during the first season of use.
Spray your plants once a week but if you have a serious infection, you can spray every three days.
Bird of paradise seeds can harbor a fungal pathogen that causes root rot, also known as damping off.
You can prevent this by soaking seeds at room temperature for 24 hours. Drain, then soak the seeds in 135°F water for 30 minutes.
Let them cool and dry, and then plant them in clean soil starting medium.
You have probably seen these flowers in florist shops.
The plants make a beautiful focal point in a garden or a delightful houseplant in cooler regions, especially if you have a sunroom.
As if having a large perennial with stunning flowers in your yard was not enough, these types of plants have some unusual advantages.
Bird of paradise leaves are evergreen and remain on the plant. This makes them an excellent choice for adding ornamental interest near swimming pools, where shedding leaves can create a maintenance problem.
They pair well with other evergreen perennials, such as Agave vilmoriniana, Senecio mandraliscae, and Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ that have similar cultural requirements.
They also serve as beautiful cut flowers, and with a little care and some fresh flower food can last up to two weeks in a vase.
Learn more about how to make your fresh flowers last longer in this guide.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
A Carefree Noble Flower
Perhaps you have bought a bird of paradise flower for a loved one, or even yourself.
You may not realize that this stunning plant was once an exciting novelty from a foreign land. Now it is a low-care fixture in places with warm climates, such as southern California and Florida.
The plants are popular both for landscaping and growing as houseplants. With proper care, they will thrive and produce up to three dozen flowers a year.
Who says that you can’t have a regal garden of your very own?
Are you growing bird of paradise plants? Tell us about your experience and share your tips in the comments section below.
And for more information on how to grow other unique flowering plants, check out these guides next:
Photo by Helga George © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via 9EzTropical, Costa Farms, and Plants Express. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu and Clare Groom.
About Helga George, PhD
One of Helga George’s greatest childhood joys was reading about rare and greenhouse plants that would not grow in Delaware. Now that she lives near Santa Barbara, California, she is delighted that many of these grow right outside! Fascinated by the childhood discovery that plants make chemicals to defend themselves, Helga embarked on further academic study and obtained two degrees, studying plant diseases as a plant pathology major. She holds a BS in agriculture from Cornell University, and an MS from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Helga then returned to Cornell to obtain a PhD, studying one of the model systems of plant defense. She transitioned to full-time writing in 2009.