While it sounds like it should be an exotic bird found in Hawaii, the Bird of Paradise is actually a distinctive flowering plant from South Africa. The plant itself is a broad-leafed stalk plant with leaves resembling those of a banana tree, while the flowers resemble the head of a brightly-colored bird peeking out from between the leaves. There are a total of four different strains of the Bird of Paradise, each one with its own color scheme.
Named for the brilliant yellow of it’s petals, the Mandela’s Gold is a rare strain of the Bird of Paradise plant due to the fact that it is often cross-pollinated with the more common strains. Because the yellow color is a recessive trait in the plant, a Mandela’s Gold can only be produced when two yellow-flowering Birds of Paradise pollinate with one-another. This variety of the Bird of Paradise was known as the "Kirstenbosch Gold" until 1996, when the flower was renamed in honor of South African President Nelson Mandela.
The most common variety of the Bird of Paradise is also the most impressive–at least in size. While the flowers of the Nicolai are similar to other varieties in shape, the color of the flowers range from white sepals to a more violet-hued "tongue" and bract. The Strelitzia Nicolai plants commonly form large bundles of stalks and eventually grow into trees, becoming 30 feet or more in height and several feet in diameter. This plant has also acquired the informal nickname of "big bird."
The Strelitzia Juncea variety of the Bird of Paradise is different in appearance from it’s cousins in that it veers more toward a reed-like look, with the stalks of the plant standing almost straight up from the root cluster in a fan-like formation. The plant is also slower to grow and flower than the other varieties, often taking nearly three to four years to flower. The Juncea strain also has a reputation as being drought resistant, though it does thrive in moist areas. The flowers of this strain are a light red in color, with an orange "crown" of petals.
Called the "White Bird of Paradise" for it’s striking white flowers, the Strelitzia Alba strain is another tree variety. It can achieve 18 feet in height, with a combined stalk width of 6 to 7 feet, and the flowers often reach a whopping 12 inches in length when they appear. The Alba strain is considered a slow-growing plant, and is slightly less common than the other strains with the exception of Mandela’s Gold flower. It is often confused with it’s cousin, the Strelitzia Nicolai, as the two plants are remarkably similar in appearance. Identification can be made easier by realizing that the Alba strain has lighter-color leaves than the Nicolai, and by observing the colors of the flowers once they appear.