Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

‘Mandela’s Gold’: At Long Last, Bloom

The first flower just starting to open.

My first plant of Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’ began to bloom this week, seven years after I sowed its seed. No, this delay is not abnormal. In fact, it can easily take up to 10 years before you see flowers.

This is the normal color of a bird of paradise flower.

‘Mandela’s Gold’ is named, of course, in honor of Nelson Mandela. It is a yellow-flowered selection of the normally orange-flowered bird of paradise (Strelitiza reginae), native to the Cape region in South Africa. The yellow-flowered variety was discovered at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, South Africa, in the 1970s. The garden’s curators carefully made selections and crosses over 20 years in order to develop a yellow-flowered strain that would be true to type from seed. Originally named S. reginae ‘Kirstenbosch Gold’, the strain was renamed ‘Mandela’s Gold’ in 1996, with the approval of Mr. Mandela himself.

All It Takes is Patience

I planted the 3 seeds I bought 7 years ago in early March, soaking the very hard seeds in warm water to soften them up before sowing them in small individual pots. I placed the pots in a warm, well-lit area, as I do with most seeds I sow indoors. The three germinated several weeks later. Their growth was slow but steady, typical of a bird of paradise. I repotted often (the large thick roots will split the pot if you don’t!) into bigger and bigger pots over the years. The largest specimen began producing a flower stem in early summer, but it was not until September that the flower finally opened. I assume that the other two plants will begin to bloom… in a year or two. After a bird of paradise first flowers, it usually repeats the performance every year.

Grow Your Own Bird in Paradise

I first saw ‘Mandela’s Gold’ in bloom in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens nearly 20 years ago.

It takes a lot of sun to raise a bird of paradise. So every year, I put my plants outside in June where they can get more light than indoors. In a more moderate climate (where I live, frost is still common until mid-June), they would benefit from more time outdoors. In zones 10 and above, you can even plant them outside permanently.

In winter, I put mine in my sunroom, but a bright window indoors would do as well. (I grew ordinary birds of paradise from seed long before I had a sunroom!)

Any soil suitable for this easy-to-grow plant will do. It prefers regular watering during the summer, but tolerates drier conditions in the winter, especially if you keep the plant cool. Since it prefers temperatures above 40˚F (5˚C) at all times and frost is common in my climate by mid-September, I move my plants back indoors early in the month. I occasionally fertilize from spring to mid-October using any fertilizer I have on hand (I’m not a great believer in speciality fertilizers). Many gardeners keep their plants cool, with nights of about 50˚F (10˚C) during the winter, but my sunroom remains at room temperature all year round.

The plant will eventually reach about 4 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 m) high and 1 1/2 to 3 feet (0.5 to 1 m) in diameter in size, about twice the current size of my newly blooming plant, and will produce divisions over time, forming a dense clump. The plant that is now blooming is beginning to make its first division.

The thick leaves reminiscent of a banana plant (a distant relative) are resistant to insects and diseases, although I’ve already had mealybugs on a strelitzia in the past. They are resistant to dry air as well.

Seeds of ‘Mandela’s Gold’ are quite costly (if I remember correctly, I paid about $15 for the 3 seeds), but I think it’s a worthwhile investment, because it’s a very pretty plant. Moreover, blooming-size plants of ‘Mandela’s Gold’ sell for about $100! Not that I intend to sell mine…

In short, ‘Mandela’s Gold’ bird of paradise is easy to grow, but slow to come into bloom. So if you are very patient …

You can readily find  ‘Mandela’s Gold’ seed on eBay and at Amazon as well as in some seed catalogs. Since the seed you find may be shipping from another country, it is worth noting that you can import seeds from around the world without requiring any kind of special permit.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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