Flying with the Bird of Paradise
Strelitzia, the Crane flower, the Bird of Paradise – what a set of names for one plant. I don’t know why I’m so fascinated with them. It’s a combination of its names, exoticness, rarity and its flowers, which can take over five years to appear, from seed. This is not a plant for the impatient.
Sowing the Seed
In 2010, I got several seeds of Strelitzia Reginae, which has orange flower petals and also Strelitzia Mandela’s Gold, which has yellow, from an online store around Autumn. In hindsight, this was pretty much the worst time of year to buy these seeds. Strelitzia usually flowers around Winter and sets seed in later Winter, so these seeds could have been almost a year old and for Strelitzia, the fresher the seed, the better.
The sowing instructions were very thorough – especially about pre-soaking the seeds and keeping the soil warm and moist for germination – unfortunately, this was winter and so pots went into the airing cupboard where temperatures fluctuated quite a bit depending on when the hot water and central heating was on. They were chilled and cooked several times on a daily basis. Strelitzia can take some time to germinate and I got impatient and would often rummage in the pots to see whether anything was happening too.
I pretty much did everything the wrong way, but I was new, naive and somewhat foolish and it showed. Out of the several seeds that I sowed, only one germinated, and I have treated it like the most precious thing since.
If I were to sow Strelitzia again, here’s what I would do:
- Wait until well into summer, when it starts getting really warm outside
- Get several seeds, since germination is very hit-and-miss, the more seeds you have, the better the chances you’ll get something
- Soak the seeds in water for a few days to a week.
- Prepare a pot (or pots depending on how many seeds you have) of soil, dunk it in water till totally wet through and leave the excess to drain overnight
- Sow the seeds in the soil, about 1 cm deep
- Place pot(s) in the green house or in full sun
- Be patient and keep moist, don’t let the soil dry out
- Hope for germination
You can also increase your chances of germination by carefully scratching the tough outer coating of the seed halfway through soaking and using a temperature controlled propagator.
Since it was winter, the seedling was kept indoors where it very slowly grew its first seed-leaf, and then after an inordinate amount of time, grew the second. Unfortunately, as the soil was kept moist it caught a bad case of Sciarid fly and I had to keep a polythene bag over the whole pot to keep the flies inside.
I tried treating the flies by spraying them, which sort-of worked but a mass of dead flies and insecticide funnelled down the second seed leaf – which was just unfurling at the time – and this caused its stem to rot and turn black and in a few short weeks, I managed to halve what took months to grow as that leaf dropped off.
I bit the bullet and carefully spooned out the young seedling – which was under siege from flies and their larvae – washed it and placed it into a much more appropriate sized pot. I saw that the amount of growth below the soil was much more than above when I accidentally broke the thick tap root after several inches, not realising it would be that long.
So, flies, larvae, rotted leaf, broken root, re-potted and still a seedling. It sat there with one leaf for a very long time, it felt like months, it just didn’t change. I put it in the greenhouse after the last frosts and continued to care for it but only really looked at it every few weeks. It was in mid-summer that I suddenly noticed another leaf beginning to emerge and I was very excited and relieved that my Strelitzia was still hanging on and was having another go.
This new leaf grew, then unfurled after a few weeks and then another emerged and grew and then another. The tap root soon appeared at the bottom of the pot so I potted it on, there are several leaves now, but it still really is a seedling.
With the colder night temperatures I keep it out during the day to get the last of the Autumn sunshine but bring it in at night.
The Strelitzia overwintered inside the house and was kept on a bright kitchen window sill. It went outside early during a warm Spring, but then came in again as temperatures fell. When all risk of frost was over, it resumed it’s place on the patio the catch the full sun.
From it’s initial and very fragile beginnings, hanging onto a single seed leaf after being ravaged by blackfly, it’s now bounced back from the brink and turned into a sturdy young plant with thick roots that are now beginning to poke out of the bottom of the pot.
The Streliztia was potted on to a much larger terracotta pot once the thick fleshy root began poking out of the bottom of the old plastic one. Topped with stones recovered from the expansion of a border, it was a summer-time member of the patio pots collection.
It sat there all elegant and attractive while gradually growing new leaves and becoming larger. Interestingly, it did not like strong, direct summer sun. The leaves would curl inwards as though the plant was loosing too much water and wilting, this would happen even after recent watering. The rest of the patio pots would shelter the Strelitzia from the worst of the sun.
Once again, as soon as the weather began to cool in the Autumn, it was brought indoors for protection from damaging frosts.
The winter of 2013/2014 is noted for being very mild and is also noted for being the time when we moved house. With the Strelitzia in a pot, it was able to come with us easily. It spent a short period inside the new house and as the weather warmed up early, it was placed on a brand new patio. It was occasionally carted into the new greenhouse or back indoors if the nights were forecast to be cold.
Through the summer, I noticed the Strelitzia would wilt on hot sunny days, concerned that there may be something wrong with the roots, I unspotted the whole plant to reveal a mass of thick fleshy roots and not much soil.
A re-potting with some new compost should help get this plant back on track. It spent the summer re-establishing and spent the winter of 2014/2015 in the dining room, in front of the patio doors, very much like it used to before it was moved.
It’s been about four years since the seeds were sown and out of the batch of 15, this lone single plant remains the solve survivor. However, all is not well with the Strelitzia;
- The leaves still curl inwards in the sunshine as though the plant is short of water
- Some leaves have unsightly brown blotches and are curled inwards from the edges
- The newest leaves are not smooth and paddle-like, but warped and mis-shapen.
- New leaves try to unfold and unfurl before they’ve cleared the stem of the leaf they emerged from
I don’t know if this leaf deformity is from the compost-mix when I repotted the plant last year, but I hope it’s a phase and the Strelitzia grows through it. I don’t know what the diagnosis is, but I’m hoping the prognosis will be OK as a new leaf (albeit rather mis-shaped) appeared over the winter quickly followed by another in the Spring so the plant is still growing, even if it’s not looking particularly photogenic at the moment.