BY Lori Murray
When potting or repotting Bird of Paradise, consider putting either Styrofoam peanuts or hunks of Styrofoam in the bottom of the pot. First of all, this improves drainage. Secondly, it makes the pot lighter and thus easier to move. Also, when the plant becomes potbound and you wish to divide it, the rhizomes will have grown all around the Styrofoam and when you remove it the plant’s roots are looser and easier to divide. Use rich, loose soil. One video suggested a mix of one-third compost and two-thirds horticultural sand, but any rich, loose soil will do. The most common problem is root rot; thus the importance of soil that drains well and some care to avoid overwatering. One source said that the success or failure of this plant usually depends on whether or not it receives adequate moisture, but also cautioned that soggy soil with poor drainage and insufficient watering will cause its leaves to yellow and the plant will die. The plant can be mulched, but take care to keep the mulch 2 to 3 inches away from its stems.
When a bird of paradise matures, it can be propagated by dividing its rhizomes. Since propagating from seed is possible but complicated, and the new plants will not bloom for at least 5 years, dividing the plant seems to make more sense. In late spring, dig up and separate old clumps, dividing those with four or five shoots into single stems where they naturally divide. Remove any Styrofoam and gently untangle the rhizomes. Cut off roots that get bent or damaged. Dust the roots with a rooting hormone and repot. Wait a day or two before watering to give the cut roots time to form a protective seal which will keep them from getting soggy and rotting when you water. Keep the soil moist until roots are established – at least three months – then begin fertilizing. In the growing season, water twice a week, figuring about an inch of water per week.
I found researching this plant to be very unsatisfying. Perhaps because it’s predominantly found in Southern California (it’s the Official Flower of Los Angeles) and Florida, most of my original information came from sources in those states. I did find a small amount of information in the aggie horticulture archives: it’s mentioned in most of the tables of landscape plants as appropriate for the Gulf Coast, and one article was written for the Galveston Gardeners online publication. I gathered more from conversations with local people who were actually growing the plant. One thing I definitely learned is that the plant grows very, very slowly and doesn’t bloom for several years – maybe as much as 7 -after it is planted. Fertility of the soil is extremely important and Osmocote is mentioned numerous times. There was conflicting information on spacing the plant. Because it blooms on the outside of the clump (on new growth, I suppose), one source mentioned spacing 6 feet apart. Yet a friend told me that her plants didn’t bloom when they were generously spaced, but when she moved them close together – just inches apart – on the advice of a relative, they bloomed that very summer. Whether blooming had to do with spacing or their age is an unanswered question, but we do know that the plants like to be pot bound which suggests they prefer crowding. If you plant them close together, what do you do as they grow bigger around? Transplant every once in a while, I suppose. Not a huge chore since they grow so slowly. In our climate they should bloom intermittently throughout the year, but local gardeners disagree about blooming in full sun versus partial shade – one says partial sun produces more flowers; anther maintains full sun produced her blooms.
You can see mature Bird of Paradise in front of the Compass Bank (the old Harlingen National building) on Van Buren Street and at the Harlingen Airport. Beyond that, you’ll have to do your own experiments and see what works for you.
The Galveston County Master Gardeners, Issue 189, February-March 2014