Schoolchildren recognize the bird of paradise as our city flower, though most of the adult population of Los Angeles would probably be surprised by this fact. Had I been asked, I might have guessed that our city flower was a native plant, the California poppy perhaps. But our city fathers chose a most exotic plant instead, one likely to maintain our image as a palm-filled paradise. Though this is not the tropics, the bird of paradise is a decidedly tropical plant, as tropical as a banana--to which it is closely related.
The "Sunset New Western Garden Book" suggests that the bird of paradise is safe from frost only in certain areas: It grows in Whittier but not El Monte, in Hollywood but not North Hollywood. Unless given some kind of overhead protection, it is damaged at 28-29 F, though it usually recovers. Where frost is not a threat, the bird of paradise survives against all odds, including drought. This shouldn't be too surprising, since, while it's a tropical plant, it is native to South Africa's eastern Cape area, where drought is not uncommon.
Sunset goes on to describe it as a plant "of extremely individual character" (it is not easy to draw, though our examples by Los Angeles schoolchildren show it possible). Though I have a difficult time imagining the flower to be a tropical bird (it looks more like some shadow animal a child might make with his hands), it certainly is the very essence of exotic.
This has made it a bit of a sore thumb in the landscape. Both the color and the shape conspire against any harmonious inclusion with more common garden flowers. Planted next to roses, it looks like an alien trying to go unnoticed at a garden tea party. It's best in lonelier surroundings, with only shrubby shapes for company. Landscape architects use it as an "accent" in mundane plantings of ground covers or low-growing shrubs, where it can be the uncontested star.
For this purpose, there is an even better version of the common bird of paradise named Strelitzia parvifolia . I haven't seen one for years so I can only describe it, and I don't know where to purchase one (perhaps readers have suggestions?). The leaves on this variety, normally broad like a banana, are almost completely rolled up so they appear to be thin spikes, like the leaves on our native yucca. They also show off the flowers better, since the leaves often hide them, or at least distract from them when browned or yellowed. This, incidentally, is easy to cure; simply remember the plant's tropical origins, and water and fertilize more often.
Sunset advises against dividing the clumps of leaves too often, noting that the plants will bloom more if left alone. This advice should be heeded; the plants are almost impossible to dig out of the ground and split apart, as anyone who has tried to remove a bird of paradise has found out the hard way.
Should you inherit one, you might consider keeping it. There are few flowers that cut so well or last so long in vases. And where else could the bird of paradise call home? Only in Los Angeles would it feel comfortable, in this city so full of "extremely individual character" and characters.