Sandy’s Garden .. Bird of Paradise

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I sometimes spend the taxpayers’ money by travelling on buses, flourishing my senior citizen’s bus pass with gay abandon as if there were no tomorrow.

I do know that the day of reckoning will come, that an entire office block filled with civil servants will be put in place to means test the provision of such cards to every elderly person – even though the cost of providing these cards to all is minimal, the cost only being incurred when the bus companies claim recompense for their being used. And, since my experience is that the local buses are largely the preserve of the poor and the elderly … and particularly the elderly poor … and are not used by the majority of the elderly, I cannot believe that many people who would be excluded by means testing the provision of the cards actually use them. But be that as it may, I sometimes travel by bus. And because many buses carry a complement of regulars, bus passengers tend to converse with one another, which allows me to overhear … and enjoy … some conversational gems.

This explains how I came to overhear two men talking about plants to brighten up the winter home. “Oh,” said one, “I’ve found a marvellously colourful plant! It’s got a big flower that’s orange and blue and white and looks exactly like a tropical bird’s head. I tell you, it’s a real beauty!”

“What do you cry it?” enquired his interested companion.”

“It’s cried a bird of paradise,” he was informed. “And it’s something special I can tell you!”

A botanist would not disagree with any of this. The so-called ‘bird of paradise’ is, botanically, Strelitzia reginae in honour of King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz. The plant was introduced into the United Kingdom by Sir Joseph Banks … possibly the leading British plant hunter of his generation and founder of the African Association … from, appropriately, South Africa, in 1773. Strelitzia reginae is native to South Africa but has been introduced into, and become naturalised in, Mexico, Belize, Bangladesh, the Madeira Islands and Juan Fernández Islands. It is grown commercially in California and Hawaii … the latter location being of interest because the bird of paradise doesn’t appreciate salt sea spray and will not thrive near the coast … and is happy in most soils, given the right climate. Sadly, the locations in which it thrives have a very different climate to that which we ‘enjoy’, if that be the appropriate word! But, although it will not grow in the garden in central Scotland, it does do well as a house plant, again provided that is given the right conditions.

So what does the bird of paradise need? It needs to be kept cosy, say 13°C - 15°C … 55°F - 60°F in old money … and needs to be watered sparingly and to have its leaves moistened occasionally. It is usually disease-free, although it’s as well to keep an eye open for whitefly. Bought from a garden centre in flower … which is by far the best way to get one, albeit it is also the most expensive, it will carry large, brightly-coloured blooms resembling a tropical bird’s head in profile for quite a few weeks. You may need to be patient, for the flowering period really doesn’t really start for another couple of months, although nurseries and garden centres often persuade them to flower early. Strelitzia reginae can be grown from seed, but you will certainly require a great deal of patience to do so, for the plant will take three to five years to bloom. So go on, splash out! Christmas comes but once a year … do all retailers know this? … and, if you can find one in bloom, a bird of paradise will make a striking change from a poinsettia for December.