Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise Flower at Descanso Gardens, February 2020

Indigenous to South Africa, the bird of paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae) has become a welcome interloper among the flora of Southern California. I remember when I first saw one, my first response was, “How exotic!” Now I almost tend to take them for granted, they are so widespread.

It is amazing to me that mankind has succeeded in shuffling the flora around all around the earth. I was amazed to see eucalyptus trees in the Peruvian highlands. Even more amazing to me were the jacarandas in Buenos Aires, flowering as they did in November during the Southern Spring. (But then, jacarandas are native to South America.)

The same thought hit Henry David Thoreau writing in The Maine Woods. On his three trips to Maine, Thoreau is disturbed by what man had dome to the trees of Massachusetts. In the Maine of the early 19th century, that shuffling of the trees had not yet occurred. What had occurred, on the other hand, was massive logging. It was rare for Thoreau and his co-travelers not to come across old logging camps far into the interior of the state.

Joe Polis, a Penobscot Indian Who Traveled with Thoreau

One result of man’s interference is the potential loss of important species. On his third trip to Maine, Thoreau traveled with an Indian, Joe Polis, who told him that every plant was medicinal to the Penobscot Indians, and went on to demonstrate among several examples which Thoreau showed him.

After the White Man pretty much replaced the original population, we lost a great deal that they had learned over thousands of years.

Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise at Los Angeles Arboretum

Strelitzia reginae at Los Angeles Arboretum

Even before I came to Los Angeles for the first time in 1966, I could identify the Bird of Paradise, or Strelitzia reginae. For me, it always represented the exoticism of the tropics. It went with all those palm trees and other flora that one never found in Cleveland or New Hampshire. There is a funny thing about those exotic plants, including the Bird of Paradise. Whereas Eastern plants are more tactile, the palms and flowers in Southern California are not friendly to the touch.

That is especially true of palm trees. When I found out that rats like to live in palm trees, I lost all interest in touching them. As for the Bird of Paradise, which is actually an import from South Africa, where it is called the Crane Flower, it has no inviting scent, nor is it soft and approachable. It’s like many succulents, many of which are interesting looking, but do not reward close scrutiny.

Sometimes I wonder if the people in Los Angeles resemble the local plant life in that regard. We’re all from somewhere else, like the Bird of Paradise, but we’re hard tom get to now. There is a certain feeling of noli me tangere. (Do not touch!)