The bird of Paradise
It often happens now that our curiosity pushes us towards unusual and exotic plants, as happens for the plant commonly called bird of Paradise, often present in exhibitions and fairs, it is possible to find it even in the nursery, even if incorrect cultivation conditions often give rise to to ugly and inconspicuous specimens, which make us desist from buying it, fearing to have to take home a plant with a difficult and complex character. In reality it is not a plant that is so exotic, nor is it such a big and demanding challenge.
Strelitzias (this is the botanical name) have been cultivated in Europe since 1700, when they were introduced in the botanical gardens of Kew, in the United Kingdom; their name indeed shows how the discoverer of these plants wanted to pay homage to Queen Carlotta, duchess of Mecklemburg-Strelitz; hence the bizarre name, often pronounced sterile in Italy, perhaps because its sound seems sweeter with this pronunciation.
They are perennial plants, belonging to the musacee, or close relatives of the banana trees, originating in southern Africa, a place from which many plants have left, to discover the entire globe, now widespread in certain places, so much to be considered autochthonous; in fact the Strelizia is now widespread in most of Central and South America, in Asia, in Europe and in Australia, and is often used as a garden plant, to form large hedges.
How a strelitzia is made
As for the banana tree, it is a perennial herbaceous plant, evergreen, which develops from August-September, up to the summer heat, when it goes into a vegetative rest, when the temperatures are very high and the air is very dry. The roots are fleshy and often form a stocky rhizome, from which the long rigid petioles branch off directly, bearing large green, leathery leaves covered with a pruinose layer that makes them bluish. A long, well-developed leaf can reach 150-200 cm in length, developing at first erect, to become with a slightly arched age.
The young plants produce only large leaves, only around 3-5 years of age between the leaves stand fleshy stems, which carry the strange inflorescences, similar to bird's heads.
The most widespread species in Italy is strelitzia reginae, which has inflorescences subtended by a rigid green spade, similar to a long beak, dominated by some flowers with orange and blue petals, all forming a kind of tuft; the strelitzia nicolai species, on the other hand, has brown or purple spates, and white or cream flowers.
The flowers in adult specimens bloom from September-October, and often continue to bloom or remain on the plant until spring.
In general the strelitzie produce a large and luxuriant head, and certainly need a good amount of space to be cultivated.
How to cultivate a strelitzia
As with many plants present on our terraces, strelitzia is also native to southern Africa, so it is not suitable for cultivation in apartments, since the climate would be excessively dry, and in the house it is difficult to find sufficiently bright places for this type of plant; some months of cultivation in the apartment, they bring the heads of strelitzia to appear sad and dull, and to stop flowering.
They are not even plants suitable for living in the garden throughout the peninsula, because they do not like excessively harsh winter temperatures: they can withstand occasional short frosts, but they do not like persistent frosts, and prefer minimum winter temperatures above 3-5 ° C. So generally they are grown in open ground in Italian areas with mild winters, or on the coasts (since they do not fear the salty air); for those who live in the rest of the country it is necessary to cultivate plants in large pots, which will have to be protected, or moved to a sheltered place, when temperatures drop in October or November, until spring. They don't necessarily need large temperate greenhouses, the placement in the corner of a south-facing terrace, or even a small, cool, sunny greenhouse may suffice.
They are plants that like to be exposed to direct sunlight, even if, in the period of vegetative rest, in June-July, it is good to shade them slightly in the hottest hours of the day, avoiding letting them cook in the sun when the temperatures are very high, and the hours of sunshine a day are really many.
They prefer very well drained soils, and therefore need to be grown in a good universal soil, made more porous and permeable thanks to the addition of sand, or lapillus or pumice stone, with a fairly fine grain size.
The young plants cultivated in pots should be repotted every year, at the end of spring, providing them with a more capacious container than they were in; when a strelitzia plant begins to flower it is considered an adult plant, and it begins to fear damage to the roots and repotting; therefore the 5-6 year old specimens are no longer repotted, also because if the root system of an adult plant is damaged, it stops flowering, making us lose much of the charm for this plant.
Watering is regular, from August until May, to be provided whenever the soil is dry; at the end of summer it spreads around the slow release granular fertilizer, which will melt with every watering. During the vegetative rest period the fertilizations are suspended and water is only sporadically sprayed.
These plants do not require pruning, although occasionally it is good to remove old and damaged leaves from the weather or cold.
Strelizia: Propagate a strelizia
The bizarre flowers of strelitzia are followed by the fruits, which contain the bizarre seeds, roundish, hard and leathery, characterized by a sort of orange plumage. They are sown in late summer, in a cool and damp soil, which must be kept in a warm and bright place until complete germination; the young plants will take about five years to develop sufficiently to start producing flowers.
The can be propagated strelizie also by division of the rhizome or root bread; this operation is practiced when the plant begins its period of vegetative rest, ie at the beginning of June. The roots are exposed to the light and are cleaned from the soil, using a very sharp and clean knife divides the head into some portions, which are then repotted individually. Generally, after the division, not all plants produce flowers in the autumn following the planting.