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Strelitzia: Bird of Paradise Care Guide

Strelitzia Bird of Paradise Care Guide
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We’re talking plant care today as I’ve put together a care guide for Strelitzia, commonly known as Bird of Paradise, Crane flower/ Crane plant or (confusingly) banana tree. In recent years, Strelitzia, or BoP as I often refer to them, have certainly become more widely available. If you have been thinking of purchasing one of these striking foliage houseplants I hope you find this post helpful in understanding their care requirements a little better.

Introduction

In warmer climates Strelitzia grow outdoors as garden plants, whereas in cooler conditions like the United Kingdom, they make for a beautifully statuesque, indoor plant. As I always say in my Plant Care posts, thinking about where your plants grow in nature will really help you to understand their care needs. Also, knowing their plant relatives can help. Strelitzia are closely related to the Musaceae, or banana plant – both share a visual similarity with their large, paddle-shaped leaves. Strelitzia is native to South Africa and is a species of evergreen tropical herbaceous plant.

Over the last two years, I’ve noticed an increase in demand for Birds of Paradise to be kept as houseplants. I think it’s down to their majestic appearance and their ability to create a tropical, leafy look to an otherwise ordinary space. These plants have serious impact so if you like a more minimal style and can provide adequate conditions, these are a great option to consider. Please note that these plants are generally considered toxic and harmful if eaten, so keep out of reach of children or pets.

In the post, I’ll be covering the topics of:

BoP varieties: Strelitzia reginae vs. Strelitzia nicolai

There are two varieties of Bird of Paradise that are most popular as houseplants. These are the Strelitzia reginae and the Strelitzia nicolai. Don’t be fooled in thinking they are comparable in terms of scale and size though…

The reginae variety is relatively petite in form and can generally grow to 1-1.8 metres / 3-6 feet in height. It has longer, slimmer paddle-shaped foliage. If you are lucky enough for your plant to bloom, the flowers are a vibrant orange and blue and absolutely spectacular.

On the other hand, its relative, the Strelitzia nicolai is also known as the ‘Giant’ Bird of Paradise. As you can probably guess, this is the larger variety which can reach around 3 metres / 9.8 feet in height when grown as a houseplant. In their natural habitat, they can rival trees in terms of their scale and grow to a humungous 6 metres / 19 feet! In a similar way to banana (Musa) plants, nicolai leaves can tear and are more rugged in appearance. The flowers on the giant BoP are white in colour, though both plants are quite shy to come into bloom in regular household conditions. But more on that later.

Whilst the reginae is more widely available in my experience, the nicolai does seem to be increasing in popularity as a houseplant too.

Always read the label…

A friend of mine told me she’d picked up a Bird of Paradise plant when doing her grocery shopping, it was early 2020 I think. She was pretty new to houseplants and didn’t realise there were different BoP’s to choose from… and she unknowingly picked up a nicolai! Let’s just say it’s nearly hitting the ceiling by this point…! For most homes, a Strelitzia reginae is a more manageable size to incorporate into your space. But if you have the height for it, it can grow to look pretty incredible.

Light

The light requirement for a happy Strelitzia is perhaps the main aspect of their care that the novice plant lover can overlook. Due to their scale and span (especially the Strelitzia nicolai), these plants are often relegated to the corner of a room. True, they can look lovely in this location but it’s important to choose a well-lit corner that receives bright, indirect light.

I’ve experimented with plant positioning in my previous three homes and without doubt, the more light my Strelitzia received, the happier it was. I’m based in the northern hemisphere for reference. During high summer, you might need to protect the plant from the direct sun as the leaves can burn if the intensity is too great. In my old apartment (photo below) my plant was 0.5 metres from my south-west facing window and it thrived. Here it received a few hours of late afternoon sunshine. A position adjacent to a window will often allow the plant to be slightly sheltered from direct sun, which can help prevent scorching. A light net or voile is another easy fix to filter the light somewhat – I found them particularly useful in my South facing space last Summer.

Bear in mind that these are the conditions that are personal to my current environment + are used as a guide for you to compare with your own home. It’s important to also remember that windows can be pretty different in size + if you live in a built up area, with other buildings close by, or if there are obstacles like trees outside, this all has an impact on the intensity of light.

At home with my Strelitzia reginae in my old apartment (above) and the cottage I stayed at during the building works of the renovation (below):

Watering

During periods of active growth, a Strelitzia likes to be watered thoroughly before allowing the top layer of potting mix to dry out before watering again – around the top inch or two. These plants have BIG ROOTS and can be heavy, so it’s not one of those plants that when it becomes light to pick up, watering is probably needed. For my environmental conditions, I find I water my plant approximately once every 7 days during growing season. During Winter, growth might slow down, or stop altogether if the temperatures are cold enough. At this point, it’s vital not to overwater the BoP or else the roots can go mushy and rot. A rookie mistake is to keep watering as ‘normal’ to try and promote growth if your plant has got a little sleepy.

In terms of watering, remember that tepid (room temperature) water is always best for your houseplants as anything too cold can shock them. If it’s in one, take your Strelitzia out of the cache pot and water thoroughly until water runs out of the drainage hole. It’s not a good idea to let your houseplants sit in water inside their pots. Also, if your planter does not have a drainage hole, be wary of overwatering! The lower leaves of a BoP will often yellow if overwatered. Conversely, Strelitzia might show signs of drying out by curling their foliage inwards. If you struggle to get your houseplant watering right, a hygrometer can help to judge things.

Below left shows a young Strelitzia reginae plant when it fitted on my plant shelf in the apartment (back right)!

Humidity + Temperature

Considering their tropical backgrounds, it always surprises me just how well Strelitzia do in typical home environments. They grow nicely without the need for any supplemental humidity – moderate humidities are fine. Be sure to keep your plant away from any draughts – too close to open windows or heaters are a no-no. Houseplants dislike sudden drops in temperature, and the BoP is no exception. Strelitzia enjoy temperatures between 21°C-30°C / 70°F-86°F the most and this is when they are likely to be actively growing. They do tolerate temperatures down to 13°C / 55°F though. They are happiest at temperatures in the 20°C’s though – the colder the temperature, the slower the growth.

Leaf Care

Strelitzia leaf cleaning is a significant part of their care routine. Like Ficus plants, the paddle-shaped foliage can be a bit of a dust-magnet! Dust build up veils the leaves and makes it harder for the plant to photosynthesise. Birds of Paradise don’t always have that many leaves, so it’s important to keep the leaves it does have clean. My Strelitzia is pretty heavy so I don’t take it to have a shower anymore! Instead I use my pressure sprayer (linked here)  and a clean, lint-free cloth. I actually like to use an old t-shirt for this task. Moving to a hard-water area means my leaves really do need a good wipe down to avoid water marks.

Fertilising

Birds of Paradise enjoy occasional feeding during the growing season. They aren’t heavy feeders in my experience but regular feeding can help to keep your plants healthy and strong. I fertilise mine once to twice a month with a balanced liquid houseplant feed at half the recommended dilution rate. You might encounter brown markings on the leaves if your fertiliser is too strong. As a plant that gets watered regularly you’re unlikely to encounter any problems with fertiliser burn. But it is good practice to check the potting mix is not excessively dry before feeding as a precaution. If your climate is quite different to mine and your plants grow consistently year-round, then more regular fertilising is fine! The easiest way to judge whether or not to feed is if your plant has new leaves growing! 

Pests

Giving your houseplants the correct care is the best way to keep them resilient to any potential pest pressures. The most common reason for a pest outbreak is often as a result of incorrect care, and/or very low humidities, coupled with high temperatures. Air flow is a consideration too – fortunately the shape of Strelitzia plants mean the space around their elongated stems is generally good. Allowing the air to circulate around your houseplants is beneficial to them all. Try not to cram too many together as this can provide favourable conditions for pests to congregate. If you are new to houseplants, it’s always best to take time to consider what types will work for your lifestyle / your household conditions.

Pests to watch out for with Strelitzia are spider mites and mealy bugs. As sun-loving plants, please note that these brighter light locations can also exacerbate any lurking pest problems. If you have a recovering BoP, it’s best to keep in a more ambient light spot for a few weeks.

When I bring a new plant into my home, I will always quarantine it for a few weeks. Then, I’ll give it a thorough inspection in good light and often a soil change before introducing it to my other plants. As I have a lot of plants, this is an important step in ensuring my collection is not compromised by pests brought in by new plants. It’s totally worth the slight inconvenience of having a ‘new plant gang’ hanging around on the kitchen table.

If you notice a pest problem, an insecticidal soap spray and bath (roots and all) is a good starting point, before showering down. After any treatment, I like to use SB plant invigorator either as a ready to use spray, or you can also get a concentrated bottle to dilute into a spray bottle yourself. Be extra careful on more delicate foliage and always test a part of the plant first. Be careful to keep out of direct light as the leaves will be more sensitive after any pest treatment.

I’ve also used a neem oil solution in a spray bottle which is also very effective for something more widespread. If it’s something very minor, a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol can also work. It might sound unconventional, but beneficial insects can really help to bring a more widespread outbreak under control. They are certainly becoming more widely available as a method of pest management, but I have not tried this myself. When I have a pest issue with my plants, I always isolate them for a number of weeks in my kitchen/quarantine zone and monitor before reintroducing near my other plant gang. If you discover a pest issue, it’s always best to carry out a thorough check of any pots that were located nearby, or any ones that are generally more sensitive to an attack.

Repotting

First of all, Strelitzia roots are LARGE! I’ve broken a planter or two over the course of keeping a BoP… The roots can fill out the planter so much that the old pot might need to be cut off! Sounds extreme, but if you know these roots, you’ll know what I mean. You might also find them growing out through the drainage holes.

Early Spring is an ideal time to re-pot your plant if it needs it. Before any repotting, water the plant a few days beforehand to prep your plant for its pot upgrade. In terms of repotting frequency, annual repotting on younger plants is often adequate. Let the roots dictate when the plant could do with a larger pot. Increase the pot size gradually as big jumps in size aren’t advisable. Loosen the roots gently with your hands, being careful not to damage the chunky roots when doing so. For more mature plants, it’s a good idea to hold off repotting too frequently. A pot-bound plant can help encourage flowering. See below for more on that.

Potting mix

The potting mix that I’ve found to work for my Strelitzia is a free-draining light and airy mix of peat-free houseplant compost, perlite + orchid bark. I’ll pop a link here for the blogpost and component parts I use here. A common problem is that some plants can be in poor quality soil in their nursery pot, which is often too dense for the plant to be happy long-term. This can mean that the potting mix will stay saturated for longer than is best for your plant. Getting to understand how soil amendments can benefit your plants is key in keeping your houseplants happy.

A NOTE ON POTS: 

The type of pot you choose to use is also intrinsically connected to your mix and watering requirements. For me, I prefer to use nursery pots with the majority of my houseplants because I find they dry out too quickly in terracotta. Terracotta is much more porous and will wick the moisture away from the plant. If you intend to use terracotta for plant styling reasons, you can always use the terracotta as a cover pot. This is personal preference of course! If you are a big time over-waterer, you actually might find terracotta can be corrective in helping to manage your over-zealous watering efforts! But it’s a hard one to judge so be careful with plants that require more frequent watering. Personally, I find Strelitzia to dry out too quickly for me in terracotta.

Propagation + pruning

The most common propagation method for a Bird of Paradise is by division, but seed propagation is also possible. From seed, the plant will take a number of years to reach adequate maturity to produce flowers. To propagate Strelitzia by division, you will have best success with a more mature plant that has a developed root system. You’ll be able to observe in older plants that the growth can be split/divided into ‘clumps’ of plant. You’ll then be able to pot these up as you wish. Do bear in mind that propagation by division will likely cause the ‘parent’ plant to skip a year of blooming.

Due to their growth habit, it’s unlikely you will want to prune your Strelitzia. If you wish to remove any leaves though, always use a sharp, sterile blade to chop back. Remember to clean the blade between pruning different types of houseplants too. Most importantly though, be careful not to cut the spathe if present. See below…

Flowering

As we discussed towards the beginning of the blogpost, Strelitzia flowers truly are a sight to behold. Flowering can occur when the plant has reached maturity of 3-4 years. Younger plants can be potted on when necessary, but as the BoP matures, be mindful of frequent re-potting. This is because restricting the roots is vital in encouraging the plant to bloom. When the plant has reached its full maturity and height, look out for the growth of a spathe. This is where flowers will develop so be sure not to damage or prune this part! Also take extra care of the spathe if repotting. You’ll also want to protect the flowers from harsh direct light.The flowers can be quite elusive when the Strelitzia is grown as an indoor plant. If you can provide optimal conditions though, you might just witness a show of blooms in time! Patience is key here.

Here are some flowering Strelitzia photos from my Barbican Conservatory blogpost, Edinburgh post and my HPH visits… Jardin Botanique de Bordeaux:

Conclusion

I hope you liked this Strelitzia / Bird of Paradise plant care post and thank you for your blogpost requests. As these plants mature, they are high-impact architectural plants to have at home. Whilst writing this post, I might have convinced myself that I should add a Giant BoP to my collection… I can really envisage it in the double height space in the Chapel renovation! You can find this post under my ‘Plant Care Guides’ tab if you wish to refer back to it. Here are some pins to share or save too:

*Affiliate links are used in the post which means I can receive a (very) small amount of commission if you make a purchase — thank you for supporting my blog. I often get asked where I get specific items from so have linked these in the post. I have bought all these products with my own money.

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