If you want to make some easy money, grow the bird of paradise.
This is the official flower of the city of Los Angeles, the flower that is as much a part of living here as traffic. It can bloom at any time, but winter is its preferred season to flower.
You cannot imagine the ecstasy experienced by Chicagoans and New Yorkers, who happily pay $5 or more per bloom, at the sight of these exotic flowers, which look like crested birds from the tropical rain forest. Yet here in the Valley, in our own back yards, birds of paradise grow almost like weeds. . . and still, even local florists will charge several dollars per bird.
Native to South Africa – whose long hot summers and cool wet winters mimic our own – the bird of paradise was brought to England in the 18th century by a plant explorer who gave it the genus name of Strelitzia (in honor of King George III’s wife, the duchess of Strelitz) and the species name of reginae (meaning “of the queen”).
The majestic bird of paradise, which is custom-made for container growing, has a highly desirable, if somewhat frustrating quality: The more crowded it gets, the more it flowers. It develops from rhizomes, bulblike underground structures that cause it to clump and expand in girth without much human assistance. However, you do not want to interrupt this expansion. In other words, if bird of paradise is growing in a terra cotta pot, you do not want to move it until just before it breaks the pot and then, reluctantly, you should transplant it to another pot that is only slightly larger than the first. Bird of paradise dreads being divided and will stop flowering for years as a result of bifurcation. It shares this characteristic with cymbidium orchids, African violets and many flowering cactuses.
A subtle truth about bird of paradise is its response to an added measure of warmth. It is a subtropical plant that blooms in winter, as long as the winter is mild, Los Angeles style. Therefore, it will flower that much more if it is given protection from the cold. Bird of paradise flowers most spectacularly when night temperatures are kept under control. A significant amount of heat is gained and retained at night by planting next to a heated building, against a sun-splashed block wall, or under a patio roof.
Perhaps the key to growing bird of paradise is an understanding of its ecology. Winter-blooming plants native to Mediterranean climates, such as South Africa’s and our own, require dry summers to flower at full capacity. For example, if you planted bird of paradise in the middle of a lawn, it would flower sparsely in winter due to the frequent summer soakings it received on account of the surrounding lawn.
If you have birds of paradise that do not bloom much, even though they look healthy enough, the problem is probably excessive watering during the summer.
If bird of paradise is our classic perennial winter bloomer for the sun, the kaffir lily, also from South Africa, is our outstanding perennial winter bloomer for the shade.
Once you see a kaffir lily (Clivia miniata), you will not forget it. Sets of broad, deep-green foliar straps emerge and then cascade in opposite directions from the center of the plant, where clusters of orange, tubular flowers also develop. This plant is a favorite selection for sun-deprived breezeways and is found growing under the San Diego Freeway in Brentwood, between Sepulveda Boulevard and the entry to the Getty Museum.