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Winter Migration

Bird of Paradise Spreads Its Wings in Tropical Splendor

January 11, 1998|SUSAN HEEGER

With its pointed beak and fiery topknot, the bird of paradise bloom is one of our plantscape's liveliest characters. Could that thing be real? you have to wonder, when its head first pops up in your flower border. Of course, it's as real as a cockatoo and just as exotic, which is why Santa Barbara nurserymen brought it to Southern California during the mid-1880s, a time of near-hysteria over garden greens from the tropics. A native of subtropical South Africa, the rangy bird fit the bill--so well, in fact, that it became, in 1952, the official flower of Los Angeles. Strelitzia, as botanists know it, is an evergreen perennial that likes heat, needs only moderate water and doesn't mind packing into beds or planters with lots of its fellows. In its small, shrublike form--S. reginae, also called crane lily--it grows to five feet, with slender, paddle-shaped leaves and brilliant orange, blue and purple flowers that keep coming for half the year, especially during these cool months. Just as eager though less well-known is S. juncea, a variety of S. reginae with a grass-like leaf. And towering over both, S. nicolai is a 30-foot-tall giant whose rattling, leathery leaves suggest banana plants while its quiet blue-and-white blooms are beside the point.

Whatever their size and shape, these offbeat birds tend to inspire either love or hate in L.A. gardeners. To some, they're overused, tacky parking-lot fare. To many natives, the plants have simply always been part of the territory, lending a careless elegance to the walls and courtyards of fine old neighborhoods where they thrive with little care. Protect them from frost, feed them once in a while and cut their flowers for your house. Your leafy birds will fill any place with personality and probably outlast your feathered ones.

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