This time of the year is the season for the Strelitzia (Bird-of-paradise flower): Those glamorous flowers indigenous to South Africa.
The unique shape of the flower is there for a specific purpose: It depends on birds for pollination. The flower produces large quantities of low quality nectar but the characteristics of the flower are specific to attract birds as the flower is strong enough to carry the weight of a bird. And the bird it attracts most is another species unique to South Africa – the sunbird.
The sunbird perches on the blue stem of the flower and the weight of the bird pushes the stem open. The pollen is then transferred to the bird’s feet. The perching bird finds the nectar from above which has resulted in another evolutionary adaptation: Strelitzia flowers grow upward. The pollen on the bird’s feet is then carried to the next flower. In South Africa there is a good set of seed for the Strelitzia thanks to the efficacy of the sunbird as pollinators.
The Strelitzia is also found in some areas in the USA but they find it extremely difficult to propagate the plant there. Despite a long history of worldwide cultivation of the Strelitzia, areas in southern California lack a natural pollinator and thus they have to order the seeds from South African suppliers.
So next time you see those bright orange petals, give thanks to the scurrying sunbird.