Monday, July 31, 2017

Apple #744: Birds of Paradise

Yes, it's been a while. But I am moved to Apple this topic because a friend who has been a Daily Apple fan revealed a question and I would like to find the answer for him.

This friend, let's call him Shalom, moved to Hawaii not long ago and has been planting and growing many fabulous flowers.  One of the flowers that bloomed recently is a bird of paradise.  He posted a photo of it on his facebook page, and many of us marveled at its beauty and strangeness.  I asked, "Do you know what pollinates that thing?  Is it, like, a pelican?" and he said, "I have no idea how this flower works."

Shalom's bird of paradise.
(the photo is Shalom's, which I stole from him)

What is an Apple Lady to do, but seek the answer?

  • The flower of a bird of paradise, sometimes called a crane flower, looks complex, but once you know what all the parts are, you can see it works a lot like most flowers.
  • The green and red and purplish canoe-shaped things at the bottom are actually modified leaves, called bracts. The "petals" of a poinsettia flower are also called bracts, if that helps.
  • The bracts on a bird of paradise can be 4 to 8 inches long, depending on the age of the plant. 
  • Most "normal" flowers have little green bits in between the petals called sepals. Before the flower blooms, when it's still closed up, it's the sepals that are closed up around the flower, protecting it. When the sepals relax and open up, the petals inside are revealed. On the bird of paradise, the sepals are the three gigantic orange things that stick up when the flower blooms.
  • On the bird of paradise, the cluster of three vivid blue parts that jut out sideways from the orange sepals are the petals. There are actually three blue petals, but they join together to make an arrowhead shape and a little cup called the nectary where, as you would guess, the nectar is stored.

A side view of the strange shape formed by the three blue petals. Inside that opening is where the flower's nectar is located.
(Photo by seymourdaily at Digital Botanic Garden

Here's a different angle showing the way the three blue petals converge.
(Photo from Gardening Know How)

  • On "normal" flowers, the female and male parts of the flower are contained within the shelter of the petals. The female parts look like the male parts on people -- they are all contained on one long pointy thing. The male parts of the flower are the several wispy things that surround the long pointy thing.
The female parts of a "normal" flower are labeled at the left: the stigma is the sticky thing at the top end of the style, which leads down to the ovary, which contains the ovule. All this together is the pistil. The male parts are labeled at the right: the anther is the knob on the end of each filament, and is where the pollen is produced. Anther plus filament = stamen.

The male and female parts within the blue parts of a bird of paradise: the long sticky-like pointy style, surrounded by filaments from which extend the anther, with the blue petals like a bird's beak around all of these.
(Photo from Texas A&M University's Vascular Plant Image Library)

  • On a bird of paradise, the male and female parts are also housed within the petals. It, too has a very long pointy style that sticks out from among the petals and is surrounded by pollen-coated anthers that extend from filaments.
  • A flower is pollinated when pollen from the anther gets transferred to the sticky stigma at the end of the style and fertilizes the ovule at the bottom of the style.  Same thing holds true for the bird of paradise.
  • The question is, what insect or creature braves the bizarre shape that is the bird of paradise to touch the pollen and get it onto the sticky stigma?
  • Answer: in its homeland of South Africa, it's a sunbird.  

The double-collared sunbird, one of the species of sunbird that pollinates a bird of paradise flower.
(Photo from Animalia Life)

  • The sunbird's curved and slender beak makes it especially good at sucking the nectar out of flowers, which is exactly what it does to the bird of paradise. It also sucks the juice from figs and grapes and even bugs and spiders. 

This video demonstrates what happens when a bird lands on the blue petals, how the weight of the bird will cause that arrowhead-like pocket to flatten out and all the pollen on the filaments will then be exposed and can easily brush against the bird.

The bird in this photo is a Brown Honeyeater, and it's not standing on the blue petals but sticking its beak and pretty much its whole face into them. But you can see how it would get pollen all over its face, which would then be easily transferred to the next flower.
(Photo from this Bird of Paradise Pinterest page)

  • The sunbird stands on the blue petals -- maybe like a diving board -- while they insert their beaks into the nectary to suck out the nectar, and the pollen on the filaments is exposed and gets dusted on their feet. When the sunbird flies to the next flower, the pollen on their feet is transferred to the next flower, fertilizing it.
  • Sunbirds don't live in the US so if you have a bird of paradise in your garden, you'll need to pollinate it yourself. Here's how the San Francisco Chronicle says to do it:
Collect pollen by pressing on the arrow-shaped nectary [the boat-shaped thing in the blue petals] to expose the stamens. Rub a clean cotton swab over the stamens. Find a plant that comes from a different rhizome to pollinate. When you find a flower with a shiny, sticky stigma at the nectary tip, rub the pollen-coated swab across it. (from SFGate)

  • Each flower lasts only about a week, so you'll want to get to pollinating pretty soon after it blooms.
  • The fertilized bird of paradise flower will eventually dry up but within it will be seeds. When the seed pods open up, birds come and eat them and disperse them in the usual manner, allowing new plants to grow.

Bird of paradise seed pods filled with black and orange-tufted seeds
(Photo from Phillip's Natural World)

This gives you an idea of the size of the seeds. Here, they look about as big as large blueberries.
(Photo from The Adventures of Rock)

  • If you're planting birds of paradise from seeds, soak them in water for 24 to 48 hours and remove the orange hairs before planting. It can take 8 weeks before germinating and once the plant is grown, it can be 4 to 7 years before it blooms. If you have to re-pot a bird of paradise, it can take a couple more years before it blooms again.
  • So if you're growing your own bird of paradise, be patient, be patient, be patient, and then act fast.

This sunbird looks like it's thinking about whether or not it wants to sample the bird of paradise's nectar. Better make up its mind quick before the bloom is off the bird, so to speak.
(Photo from Outdoor Photo)

Hope this is helpful, Shalom. May your birds of paradise bloom abundantly and often.

The Flower Expert, Birds Of Paradise
SFGate, What is the Life Cycle of a Bird of Paradise?
Teleflora, Exotic Flower Spotlight: All about Birds of Paradise
Animalia Life, Greater double-collared sunbird, Bird of Paradise Flower Seeds