How to Prune a Gray Bird of Paradise

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The gray bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia nicholai), also called the white or giant bird-of-paradise, is a tropical herb with large, oar-like leaves that grow from a stalky, wood-like stem. Lacking branches, this plant forms a large, dense clump of gray-green stems with leaves that create a fan. Pruning involves cutting away foliage clumps at the plant base or removal of tattered or intrusive leaves. A large sharp blade like a machete slices through the fibrous stems to make the task easier.

Difficulty: Moderate


Things You’ll Need:

  • Machete
  • Thick gloves
  • Paper towels
  • Hand pruners
  • Hand pruning saw
Pruning Foliage
  1. Put on thick gloves to protect your hands while pruning with a sharp blade. Gloves also improve your grip when the slimy juices of cut gray bird-of-paradise stems coats the debris and equipment.

  2. Grasp the leaf stem, or petiole, of the large leaf needing removal. Trace your hand downward to the petiole’s attachment to the stem or plant base. Note how petioles converge to a fan of tight stems at the plant base or trunk top.

  3. Place the machete blade as low on the petiole as possible, so that the blade will cut the petiole but not readily slice into adjacent stems or trunk.

  4. Push the machete blade into the petiole to be removed. Or make short, repeated sawing motions with the blade. Control the advancement of the blade so that it does not violently exit the petiole at the end of the cut and inadvertently cut into nearby leaves or stems.

  5. Remove the petiole and attached leaf, placing it away from the task area so it does not become a tripping hazard.

  6. Examine the condition of the machete blade and handle. Wipe dry with paper towels as needed to increase traction on the handle. Wipe down your gloves if there are fleshy bits of debris or very wet parts.

  7. Continue cutting away leaves and petioles until the plant’s shape and display is aesthetically pleasing, repeating Steps 1 to 6.

Reducing Clump Size
  1. Cut away young leaf shoots of plants at the base of the clump as needed to improve appearance or reduce debris in the base of the plant.

  2. Slice the machete blade into the petiole of small leaves and plants as close to the ground as possible, pulling it away once the cut is complete. If the machete is cumbersome or too large, a hand pruner is better to reach the smaller, tender leaf stems.

  3. Wipe down the machete blade and gloves with paper towels as needed to improve the grip traction on the handle as you continue pruning.

  4. Use the hand pruning saw to remove large clumping parts of the bird-of-paradise that have a wood-like stem trunk.

  5. Support the weight of the upper half of the stem trunk and its foliage with your spare hand. Ask a partner to hold the top of the trunk and foliage if it is of substantial size or weight.

  6. Saw into the woody stem base in controlled, even strokes of the pruning saw. Allow the weight of the stem to split the cut open slightly so that the saw blade continues to cut easily. Advise the helper holding the stem to manipulate grip to allow for a controlled splitting of the trunk as you cut with the saw.

  7. Wipe down the pruning saw blade, gloves or the trunk itself if the bleeding of juicy sap makes grasping the saw handle difficult. Brush away sawdust from the trunk and the teeth of the saw blade at this time to improve its cutting qualities.

  8. Shorten your saw strokes and increase their rate near the end of the trunk cut. Faster strokes help cut the fibers as the blade exits the trunk and also diminishes the jolt that can occur when the top portion of the trunk and foliage is released, making it easier to remove and pull away.

Tips & Warnings

  • Expect the leaf blades of the gray bird-of-paradise to become split or cut after exposure to winds. Occasional yellowed leaves may warrant removal, but do not overprune the plant as much of its beauty and architectural grace comes from all the foliage.

  • Spent flowers can also be pruned away by cutting their stems as low as possible to hide the cut mark. A kitchen knife or hand pruner is adequate to cut through a flower’s juicy stem.

  • Use care with the machete; avoid chopping motions when another person is assisting or the blade, handle or working area is wet with plant sap and juices.

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