If you’ve been in Tucson for a few months, you’ve no doubt noticed the ubiquitous bright orange flowering shrubs called the bird of paradise. You may be surprised to learn that there are actually three species of Cesalpine genus of plants available at local nurseries. Also, if you come from more tropical regions, you may have a completely different plant in mind when you hear this name, which is the Strelitzia reginae plant.
Common plant names are problematic for this reason: the same name can be used for different plant species, sometimes completely unrelated to each other. Here I will explain the four different species of bird of paradise plants that can be planted in Tucson, one of which is almost native to the Sonoran Desert.
red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima): This plant is seen in many yards around Tucson. It is quite drought tolerant and can handle lots of sun. The flowers are a spectacular orange-red and attract pollinators and hummingbirds. Most landscapers cut them to the ground each fall because they tend to get a bit leggy if not pruned regularly and they only produce flowers on new growth. However, if left to grow without pruning, they will produce new growth on older branches. I have a plant in front of my house that is about 10 feet tall that hasn’t been pruned in several years. It is a bit long and careful pruning of some branches fills in the lower parts of the plant after it has grown. This kind of Ceasalpinia is the least cold tolerant and can take damage around 32 F but usually regrows flawlessly in the spring. It’s a little toxic to dogs, cats and horses.
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mexican bird of paradiseCaesalpinia mexicana): This plant is my favorite of all the bird of paradise plants. It can grow as a shrub or a small tree and has beautiful bright yellow flowers. The foliage is deep green and lush with beautiful delicate round leaflets. It seems to be growing well almost everywhere in my yard – and I tend to have volunteers too! It provides lovely dappled shade and the flowers are a great bumblebee attraction – important, since these insects are disappearing from our ecosystems. They can grow to about 15 feet tall and about 8 feet wide and are hardy to about 18 F. They can be pruned into a tree shape if preferred and can grow to about 12 to 15 feet tall. Like the red bird of paradise, it is toxic to pets.
yellow bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii): The centerpiece of this plant are the flowers, which are lemon yellow with long, showy red stamens. The shape of this large shrub can be a bit messy and irregular, and the plant sheds its leaves in winter, but in spring when it flowers, it puts on quite a show. They can grow to about 10 feet tall and almost that wide, and do well in sun or partial shade. It tolerates about 15 F. It is known to escape cultivation and occasionally shows up in our washes, so some discourage its use in landscapes. He is toxic to dogs and cats.
Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae): This plant has no relation to the Cesalpine genre, and is originally from South Africa. You may have seen it in gardens in Southern California, Florida and Hawaii. It is hardy to around 25-30 F (for a very short time) and does best when temperatures exceed 50 F, making it viable in the warmer microclimates of Tucson (or as a container plant that is brought back to the outside). inside in winter). The flowers are a spectacular sunny orange with blue-purple central spikes. It is relatively drought tolerant and undemanding to the soil. It tends to bloom several times a year. The foliage is thick and dark green. It grows in clumps about 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall and can be propagated by digging up and dividing. It should be planted in a sunny spot in the morning and shady in the afternoon. It is somewhat toxic to cats, dogs and horsesbut less than Cesalpine species, and it is not toxic to humans.
For a practical comparison of the three Ceasalpinia species, check out this guide from the University of Arizona Extension Office: Bird of Paradise Shrubs for the Low Desert.
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