Tree is up to 12m high with woody stems. The large distichous Leaves are up to 1,8m long. Large Flowers are bisexual and zygomorphic. Fruit is a woody, dehiscent capsule containing black Seeds + distinctive red aril.
Strelitzia nicolai, Strelitzia augusta, Strelitzia quensonii.
RSA Tree No. 34.
Common names: Natal Wild Banana, Coastal Strelitzia, White bird of paradise, Natal wildepiesang, Mock banana.
Family: Strelitziaceae (Strelitzia or Crane flower family). The large Leaves are in 2 opposite vertical rows and are sheathing at the base. These banana-like plants with true stems may be low growing or tree-like. The impressive and showy, zygomorphic Flowers arise from a maroon; boat shaped spathe (the bract or leaf surrounding a flower cluster or spadix. It may be coloured). The 2 lowest of the 3 cream to white or orange petal-like Sepals are erect. Two of the 3 Petals touch to make a arrow-head shape. The third upper petal is much smaller. These petals may be blue or white. These surround the 5 long, thin Stamens and the Style. The Fruit is a woody capsule with 3 lobes. Seeds are large with an orange aril (an appendage or outer covering of a seed and may appear as a pulpy covering which develops from a stalk, the funiculus, connecting an ovule or a seed with the placenta).
Name derivation: Strelitzia – given to honour Queen Charlotte von Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818), the wife of King George III of Britain. nicolai is in honour of the Russian Grand duke Nikolai Nikolaevich (1796-1855). From 1825 to 1855, he reigned as Emperor of Russia. There are 3 tree species in the RSA. The other two are Strelitzia alba and Strelitzia caudata.
Conservation Status: LC (least concern). 2009 (Raimondo et al.).
The Trunk is ringed (photo 43), grows up to 12 x 5m, and suckers from the base. It is a banana-like tree with True stems – unlike the wild banana (Ensete ventricosum), where the stems are not woody. Strelitzia nicolai has a characteristic fan-shaped Crown. The smooth, grey, true woody stem is marked with past leaf scars. This tree often forms dense clumps of plants.
The glossy grey green distichous (leaves, leaflets or flowers arranged alternatively in 2 opposite vertical rows) Leaves are large: up to 1,8 x 0,6m. The wind often tears the leaves along the lines of smaller lateral veins. The base of the channelled Petiole (leaf stalk) is sheathed at the base. Old colourless leaves are untidy and hang down.
The large and conspicuous Flowers are bisexual and zygomorphic (irregular flower with the corolla is divisible into 2 equal halves in one plane only). The compound Inflorescence is up to 45cm long within a boat like Spathe (a large pair of bracts that surrounds the whole inflorescence). This large, sheath-like spathe envelops up to 5 smaller spathes. Each of these smaller spathes is at right angles to those above and below, having rotated around a central axis. Slimy mucilage, produced within the large spathe enables the tightly packed flowers to emerge.
Each of these smaller spathes has a large single flower. Here the colour of the spathe (a sheath) around the individual flowers is ruby-red to dark blue. This opens above to allow the white Sepals and the blue or mauve Petals to emerge. Three white petaloid Sepals now protrude above the blue petals. The sepals show a long gradual taper with the lowest one being keeled and boat-shaped towards the base. Inside this are 3 mauve to blue, almost free Petals. The large, lower 2 petals converge and touch but remain separate and are not fused. They are arrowhead shaped blades. The third upper petal is much smaller and contains a nectary at its base. Within the lower petals, is a channel containing both the stamens and ovary. There are 5 thin Stamens. Each anther has 2-theca (2 pollen sacs) that run parallel to each other. The anthers dehisce through longitudinal slits. The inferior, trilocular Ovary has ovules attached to the centre of each locule. The style has 3 branches, each ending with a stigma. (Sep–Feb++).
Fruit is a woody, 3-lobed, dehiscent, woody Capsule is up to 7cm long. It contains hard black Seeds. Each seed has a bright orange Aril (an appendage or outer covering of a seed and may appear as a pulpy covering) with a tuft of hair that covers or is attached to each black seed. (Mar–Jul).
Distribution & Ecology
The tree is common in dune bush. It grows in cool moist sites, rich in leaf mould and in rocky places. Trees are located to the east of the Great Fish River (between Port Elizabeth and East London) east and then northwards including Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal e.g. Richards Bay, Swaziland Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Trees are associated with evergreen coastal forests. The torn older leaves create an audible sound when the wind is blowing. Tree frogs hibernate at the base of the big leaf stalks. The butterfly larvae of the Strelitzia Nightfighter, (Moltena fiara) feed on the leaves. The first larva development stage of this butterfly is bright red with a black head. They use silk to form a shelter by sticking leaves together. Monkeys eat the soft portions of the flowers. Monkeys, birds and the blue duiker feed on parts of the flowers. Collared and olive sunbirds effect Pollination by gathering Nectar. The tree also affords protection for birds. Green and red-billed woodhoopoe are among the birds that eat the fruit. Birds and monkeys eat the arils.
This frost sensitive plant can be grown from seeds or suckers and has invasive roots – keep away from buildings and paving. It can withstand strong, salt laden winds. Strelitzia nicolai is among the rare plants which contain bilirubin (waste product of animal metabolism colouring faecies and urine and is the cause of discoloration in bruises). Dry Leaves serve as binding for hut building and fish kraals. Dry Seeds with their arils are ground and the flour produced is baked.
Boon, R. 2010. Pooley’s Trees of eastern South Africa. Flora and Fauna Publications Trust, Durban.
Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of Southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
Lawrence, G. H. M, 1951. Taxonomy of Vascular Plants, The Macmillan Company, New York. Tenth Printing 1965.
Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa, Balkema, Amsterdam, Cape Town.
van Wyk, B. & van Wyk, P. 1997 Field guide to Trees of Southern Africa, Struik, Cape Town.