Birds of Paradise: Loved and Loathed

bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae)

bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae)

It is horticulturally significant that both the official flower and the official tree of Los Angeles are native to South Africa. The Los Angeles city flower is the bird of paradise and the Los Angeles city tree is the kaffirboom, commonly known as coral tree.
There are several distinct climate zones in South Africa, although the division of the year into a long, dry summer followed by a short and usually mild winter roughly approximates our own. Our winter season, however, coincides with South Africa’s summer, and vice versa.
If you look at a map, you will notice that South Africa is the same distance south of the equator that Southern California is north of the equator, and that each region borders an ocean. These geographical similarities explain why almost any plant that grows well in South African gardens will feel at home in our gardens as well.
Los Angeles is divided into two kinds of people: those who love birds of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) and those who loathe them.
“Familiarity breeds contempt” is a cliche that applies to birds of paradise. Walk into a flower shop in Manhattan or Chicago and you can easily pay $5 for a single bird of paradise flower. Here, the flowers pop up with weedy abandon.
Those who grow up in Southern California tend to see birds of paradise as unruly clumps of paddle-shaped leaves with gaudy and scentless blooms. Those who came here from somewhere else, on the other hand, typically see birds of paradise as exotic wonders of the botanical world whose orange, blue and white blooms evoke spectacular tropical birds. The plant is named for its flower’s resemblance to the actual bird of paradise, an avian species native to the equatorial rain forests of New Guinea.
Although you do not need to do much except add water in order to see birds of paradise take over a garden bed, you will need to fertilize and compost on a regular basis to maximize flower production. Fertilize monthly with a water-soluble product such as Miracle-Gro and cover the soil around the plant with a 3-inch layer of compost once a year.
Plants do better when they are confined, so if you divide the clumps, expect to wait several years before you start seeing significant numbers of flowers again.
If you bring home small plants from the nursery for container growing, repot each year in a larger container until the clump reaches a height of 3 feet. At this point, you will want to keep the plant in the same size container for years to come in order to maintain peak flowering. Change the soil in the pot once a year to replenish organic matter. When repotting, don’t bury the crown (where foliage meets roots), but keep the top of the root ball slightly exposed.
Bird of paradise flowers appear all year, but most heavily between September and May. Remove dried-up flower stalks and withered leaves. If the clump is many years old and starts to look mangy, cut the entire mass down to ground level. New foliage will begin to push up almost immediately.
If you have not pruned your South African coral tree (Erythrina caffra) during the past year, now is the time. Its brilliant orange-red flowers at winter’s end will be significantly diminished if the tree splits in two, a common occurrence where pruning is not done on a regular basis.
Coral trees often have several trunks or large limbs that bulk up and break apart following heavy rains or during windstorms. For this reason, a mature coral tree must be pruned annually.
Without South African flora, our gardens would be greatly diminished. Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus africanus) is the most popular local herbaceous perennial, whose nodding inflorescences include dozens of mauve blue florets per flower stalk.
Society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) is probably the sturdiest herbaceous perennial you could plant, with violet pink flowers visible most of the year. Less often seen, but deserving of wider planting, are the Bulbinellas and Bulbines, whose butter-yellow flower spikes would be an excellent complement to lily of the Nile and society garlic.
Tip of the week
The arrival of the Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl on Tuesday is a signal that the task of annual rose pruning is upon us.
Rose canes (main stems) can be cut down to 18 inches or left as high as 3 feet. The farther you cut them down, the smaller the number of flowers you will have in the spring. However, fewer flowers mean that individual blooms will be bigger than those on rose bushes that, due to being taller, have more flowers.
When pruning, always cut to a bud pointing out, as opposed to pointing toward the center of the bush; the direction the bud points is the direction new growth will take and you definitely want growth to be outward.
Ideally, you have three canes to each bush. Bushes should be 3 to 4 feet apart and vase-shaped. To induce complete dormancy, all leaves should be removed at this time.
In January, it is standard practice to spread a cup of Epsom salts around the base of each rose bush and to pile several pounds of manure onto the soil surrounding each rose. Epsom salts are available at any drugstore.

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