It’s nice at this time of year, when London is slowly becoming enveloped in the soul-sapping solution of grey smog, grey weather and grey mood, to focus one’s energies on a plant like the bird of paradise. For those who can’t simply jet off for a spot of winter sun on the other side of the world, we can at least enjoy the exotic flamboyancy of this striking beauty.
Scientifically known as strelitzia reginae, its popular name is derived not only from the wonderful orange hues that burst from its blooms but the specific shape it takes when flowering. Standing above the foliage at the tips of long stalks, it possesses a hard sheaf called a spathe, that sticks out perpendicular to the stem. Lose your glasses, squint a bit, conjure whatever last bit of childhood imagination you can muster and it looks almost beak-like, sticking out from a ‘head’ of fan-like flowers. The actual reason for such a structure is to provide a handy perch for the sunbirds who pollinate its flowers. Alongside the bright orange petals are a few bluish or white petals, which join together to form an arrow-like nectary. When the sunbirds sit to drink the nectar, the petals open up and cover their lil birdy feet in pollen. Nature, hey? Mad.
No prizes – I mean, just look at it – for guessing that it’s been a highly-prized ornamental plant for absolutely ages now. It was first introduced to Europe in 1773, when it was grown at one of our favourite London haunts, Kew Gardens. Really though, to thrive naturally it needs way sunnier and warmer weather than we can usually manage: its mainly grown nowadays in Australia and the Americas (particularly California, where it has come to be the official flower of the city of Los Angeles).
One final thing to note: any flower-lovers out there who also suffer from hay fever: their lack of airborne pollen renders them extremely low on the OPALS allergy scale (they have a score of just one out of ten). Go bask in their sunshine, sans tissues!