Houseplants Tropical Plants

‘Mandela’s Gold’ Is Back in Bloom

‘Mandela’s Gold’ bird of paradise in my sunroom en January 2020. Photo: laidbackgardener.com

My first plant of ‘Mandela’s Gold’ bird of paradise plant (Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’) began to bloom in September 2015, seven years after I sowed its seed. No, this delay is not abnormal. In fact, with the bird of paradise, it can easily take up to 10 years before you see flowers. Now, it’s in bloom again: 4 ½ years later, in midwinter (January). And it has a second flower stalk this time.

The pot now contains four plants and it’s the original and the larger of the two offsets that are producing flower stalks. I think there is another offset starting to sprout at the base of the clump. The more plants in the pot, the more often it will bloom. Hey, at this speed, I can possibly expect yearly bloom … in twenty years or so!  

History of a Surprising Plant

This is the normal color of a bird of paradise flower. Photo: amazon.com

‘Mandela’s Gold’ is named, of course, in honor of Nelson Mandela. It’s a yellow-flowered selection of the normally orange-flowered bird of paradise (Strelitiza reginae), native to the east coast of South Africa in the provinces of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The yellow-flowered variety has appeared over the years wherever the plant is grown, only sporadically, as it’s a recessive trait. Seeds taken from these plants are inevitably pollinated by the common orange-flowered variety and thus seedlings give orange flowers.

The yellow-flowered strain now called ‘Mandela’s Gold’ was developed at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, South Africa, in the 1970s, when the garden’s curators carefully hand-pollinated yellow-blooming specimens in order to create 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

Bird of paradise seed capsule. Photo: Tatiana Gerus, Flickr

I planted the 3 seeds I bought in early March, soaking the very hard seeds in warm water for three days 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 regularly (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’ve since given one of my other plants to a friend, but my second one bloomed in 2017. I think the delay was because I had kept it underpotted for too long.

Grow Your Own Bird in Paradise

I first saw ‘Mandela’s Gold’ in bloom in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens some 25 years ago. Photo: Axxter99, Wikimedia Commons

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 USDA hardiness zones 10 and above (i.e. in climates where there is almost never any frost), 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 on a sunny windowsill long before I had a sunroom!)

Ordinary (orange-flowered) birds of paradise are often sold as foliage plants in garden centers, but will bloom indoors under intense light. Photo: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com

Any soil suitable for houseplants will suit this easy-to-grow plant. 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 5˚C (40˚F) at all times and frost is common in my climate by mid-September, I move my plants back indoors early in that month. I occasionally fertilize from spring to mid-October using any fertilizer I have on hand (I’m not a great believer in specialty fertilizers). Many gardeners keep their plants cool, with nights of about 10˚C (50˚F) during the winter, but temperatures in my sunroom rarely dip below 18˚C (65˚F).

The plant will eventually reach about 2 m (6 feet) high and 1.5 m (5 feet) in diameter in size, producing multiple offsets over time, thus forming a dense clump.

The thick leaves reminiscent of a banana plant (the bird of paradise family [Strelitziaceae] and the banana family [Musaceae] are closed related) are resistant to insects and diseases, although I’ve had mealybugs on a strelitzia in the past. They are resistant to dry air as well.

For seed to form, the flowers need to be pollinated by hand. Photo: Deirdre, herbsnewsletter.wordpress.com

You’ll note that birds of paradise rarely produce viable seeds outside of their native homeland in South Africa. That’s because the birds that pollinate them, the Cape weaver (Ploceus capensis), are absent outside of that region. If you want to obtain seed, you have to pollinate them by hand.

That’s one of the reasons seeds of ‘Mandela’s Gold’ are so costly (if I remember correctly, I paid about $15 for the 3 seeds, although I see the price has come down a bit since then). Still, I think it’s a worthwhile investment, because it’s a very pretty plant. Moreover, blooming-size plants of ‘Mandela’s Gold’ are costly and, at any rate, simply not available where I live. 

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 Amazon as well as in many seed catalogs. Since the seed company 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. And yes, you can also find plants online if you’re willing to pay to save a few years of efforts.

Updated from an article appearing on September 13, 2015.

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.

8 comments on “‘Mandela’s Gold’ Is Back in Bloom

  1. Beautiful!

    Thanks for this. It gives me hope.

  2. No I know why the garden center was selling them with a plastic flower bloom!

  3. That is a new one for me. I had never noticed that cultivar. I still prefer the classic orange. I mean, I grow it specifically for the striking form of the flower and bright color (although a white cultivar would catch my attention). They are such excellent perennials for many years, but eventually get quite big, and are not easy to divide without setting them back a few years. After they get pulled apart, they look shabby, and may not bloom for a while. Incidentally, I am about to dig a small specimen from an abandoned home, just because I feel badly about leaving it there. I have not grown one in my own garden for several years. In the 80s, florists used to cut leaves on long stems, dry them, and then spray paint them. Foliage of the giant bird-of-paradise is bolder, but the bulky white flowers that drip with nectar look like drooling seagulls.

    • Drooling seagulls got a good laugh out of me!

      • If you need to bring Strelitzia reginae inside for the winter, Strelitzia nicollai is probably not worth growing. The foliage is rad, but it eventually gets too tall to be a houseplant, and it is more sensitive to frost.

  4. Pingback: Bird of Paradise: September 2020 Houseplant of the Month – Laidback Gardener

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