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Aug. 02, 2011

The Exotic Bird-of-Paradise Flower

by Kara Rogers

The bird-of-paradise flower, so-named for its remarkable bird-like appearance when in bloom, is a favorite among horticulturists and can be found growing in gardens worldwide. In the wild, however, the plant's range is limited to the subtropical coastal thickets of South Africa, between KwaZulu-Natal province in the southeast and the south-central Eastern Cape province.

The bird-of-paradise, or crane, flower (Strelitzia reginae) was discovered in 1772-73 by Scottish botanist Francis Masson, who worked for the Royal Gardens at Kew. At the time, Masson was on a plant-hunting expedition in South Africa, and throughout his journey he sent hundreds of specimens, one of which was the bird-of-paradise, to the gardens. In 1773 English botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who was then serving as the unofficial director of the Kew Gardens, introduced the plant to Britain. He named it Strelitzia after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, queen consort of George III.

The bird-of-paradise is classified in the order Zingiberales, a group of flowering plants containing ginger, banana, and their relatives. Members of this order are grouped together in part because they are monocots—their embryos have only a single cotyledon, or seed leaf (dicots, the other major group of flowering plants, have two cotyledons). Monocotyledonous plants also characteristically have trimerous (three-part) flowers and parallel-veined leaves (in contrast to the net-like and crossing reticulate veins of dicotyledonous plants).

The bird-of-paradise grows to about 3 ½ to 4 feet in height and has clumps of stiff bananalike leaves, gray to green in color, extending up from its base. Its flowers emerge from a beak-like structure known as the spathe, which sits horizontally at the top of a long stalk and forms a sheath that protects the flower. The color of the spathe ranges from green to purple.

Flowers typically appear in mid-winter and open in succession, with the first ones opening in spring. Each flower consists of three orange upright sepals and three blue petals. Located at the base of the flower where two of the petals join together is the nectary, a nectar-secreting organ. When birds such as the amethyst sunbird (Nectarinia amethystina) and the lesser double-collared sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus) land on the flower to drink the nectar, the petals open and pollen becomes attached to the birds' feet.

Pollination is complete when birds transfer pollen from one bird-of-paradise flower to another. The seeds that form following fertilization give rise to small fruits, which eventually split open, exposing the seeds. The seeds are eaten by birds, which scatter them in new areas, thereby helping the plant maintain its distribution across its habitat. Seeds are often collected by horticulturists for plant cultivation. Because the plant is so widely cultivated, seeds generally are gathered from cultivars, rather than from plants in the wild.
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Kara Rogers is the senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is also a member of the National Association of Science Writers and a contributor to the Britannica Blog, where she runs a series called Science Up Front. She holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology/Toxicology, but enjoys reading and writing about all things science. You can follow her on Twitter at @karaerogers.

This post also appears on the Britannica Blog.

About Kara Rogers

Kara is a freelance science writer and senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is the author of Out of Nature: Why Drugs From Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity (University of Arizona Press, 2012).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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