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Spring Gardens Issue | GREENING

A Glorious Flock

March 24, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

There is a kooky poignancy to the city flower of Los Angeles. No other plant comes quite so close as the bird of paradise to having the actual aspect of an animal. It's like a bird, yes -- a crane -- yet what's so moving is its quality of high-chinned hesitancy, as if it's lost but is too shy to ask for directions.

It's all the more touching to learn that the bird of paradise is lost. Stranded in traffic islands outside LAX, the convention center and every other courtyard apartment complex in Los Angeles, it is thousands upon thousands of miles from its home in KwaZulu-Natal. More than two centuries ago, it was bagged from its perches in the Eastern Cape and Natal province of South Africa and whisked off into the plant trade by an English explorer. From that moment onward, the plant known as ikhamanga in Xhosa and inkamanga in Zulu became captive to our imaginations. In the last two centuries, we have renamed it bird of paradise, idolized it and reviled it, made it the flower of royals, the emblem of star-crossed love, the Los Angeles city flower and finally, the floral retort to Florida's plastic pink flamingos. The only thing we have failed to do is consider the plant on its own merits.

The first ones to arrive in Europe were recorded in 1773 at the Royal Gardens at Kew, near London, where they made such an impression that the species was named Strelitzia reginae (pronounced struh-leet-ZEE-uh), after the duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. This was no small honor. The duchess, Charlotte, was also the queen of England, wife of George III. A certain Col. Warren of Sacramento introduced them into California in 1853, and "Southern California Gardens: An Illustrated History" by Victoria Padilla finds Strelitzias wowing the good burghers of Santa Barbara in the Montecito nursery of Joseph Sexton in the 1870s.

In 1932, they went from status symbol to sex symbol. David O. Selznick bought the rights to a Broadway play, hired King Vidor to direct, Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea to star, and selected Waikiki as location. "I don't care what you use," Selznick told Vidor regarding the film, "so long as we call it 'Bird of Paradise' and Del Rio jumps into a volcano at the finish."

By World War II, Japanese flower farmers in Southern California were cultivating them by the acre. Though much of the lucrative farming for the florist trade was seized during internment, Japanese affection for the bird of paradise held. It remains in the cutting repertoire of origami.

But such delicate regard was not L.A.'s style. In 1952, Manfred Meyberg, president of Germain's Seed and Plant Co. and the civic booster behind the "Los Angeles Beautiful" campaign, succeeded in having it made the city flower. This time it was a religious association -- only the bird of paradise seemed good enough for the City of Angels -- but in the end it might have been kinder to throw it in a volcano: regal, sexy, tragic, imprisoned and now divine Strelitzia became standard-issue stuffing for civic beds.

Which brings us to the current state of affairs. The bird of paradise is no less spectacular today than it was 200 years ago: Queen Charlotte would recognize the specimen growing outside the Burbank IKEA as her namesake. However, as poor old Strelitzia gained in popularity, its snob appeal plummeted.

There are few crueler fates for an exotic plant than to lose curiosity value. The Huntington Botanical Gardens used to have lots of them, says Kathy Musial, curator of living collections. As they became about as chic as garden gnomes, the Huntington has slowly been taking out stands dating back to Henry Huntington's time.

Speaking from his cellphone in the Department of Agriculture Plant Inspection Center at LAX, where he was checking a new haul of Thai euphorbias and aspidistras through customs, L.A. nurseryman Gary Hammer says that he no longer handles bird of paradise. It's a "Home Depot plant," he says.

The Huntington and Hammer are in the exotica business. The variety most likely to be spared at the Huntington is the rarer, sword-leaved juncea variety, Musial says. On the rare occasion that Hammer stocks Strelitzias, he will only have truck with juncea too, Hammer says. But before the rest of us start ripping out good old reginae, he warns, we should remember why it is so popular. The doughty grace of this African import has proved perfect for Los Angeles.

According to the textbooks, it shouldn't be, Musial says. Strelitzias are from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and our Mediterranean climate is more like that of the Western Cape, which receives no summer rainfall. It may be our clay and largely alkaline soil, she speculates. Whatever it is, Musial agrees with Hammer: Something about the Strelitzias equip them to cope with Southern California uniquely well.

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