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Desert Gardener: The beautiful birds of paradise

June 30, 2001|By Keith S. Mayberry, University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension

When driving up and down the streets of any city in the Valley, one can't help but notice the presence of dark green plants with an abundance of bright yellow-orange flowers. The flowers never seem to fade. For months, every time you drive by one of these magnificent plants, it is always in bloom. This plant is Caesalpinia pulcherrima (red bird of Paradise, dwarf poinciana). This plant is often improperly called the Mexican bird of paradise (C. Mexicana), a different species (described below).

The red bird of paradise is by far the most popular and widely used of the desert birds of paradise. It is cultivated as a landscape plant in the tropics and subtropics. This deciduous shrub can grow from 6 to 10 feet tall and just as wide. Young stems may have small, weak, curved thorns. Six-inch seedpods are produced from the abundant flowers. When mature, the pods split open scattering seed to the ground. If you harvest the pods before they split, you can collect the seed and use it to produce more plants.


This attractive ornamental has bright orange and yellow flowers with red stamens two to three times as long as the flowers. The plants have a magnificent display of flowers produced from as early as April and lasting into November. Typically during the winter the tops are pruned to within 6 to 12 inches above the ground, when the plant is dormant, to promote flowering and denser branching next season.

Red bird of paradise does not like shade. Set out plants in full sun: the hotter and drier the location, the better. The plants respond to irrigation but will not tolerate too much water. Symptoms of over-watering are spindly growth, lack of leaves and a red or magenta color to the foliage.

Hummingbirds are attracted to red bird of paradise. However, the flowers also attract yellowjackets as well. Also, the seed of this plant is reported to be poisonous.

Caesalpinia gilliesii (yellow bird of Paradise, sometimes referred to as Mexican bird of paradise) is common in desert landscapes. Like the others, it will grow as a mounding shrub to a height of 6 to 10 feet tall and as wide. It may be used as an accent plant in mass plantings with other desert plants. Shrubs can be pruned strongly when dormant to promote dense growth and maintain shrub form. Flowers are bright yellow with long red stamens that extend beyond the flower petals. Flowers are produced from spring through summer with the strongest displays in early summer. Foliage is less dense and more yellow-green in color than red bird of paradise. Some residents complain of an offensive odor of the twigs and seedpods.

C. mexicana (true Mexican bird of paradise) can grow to become large evergreen to semi-deciduous shrub or a small tree. Flower clusters are bright yellow, fragrant and appear at branch terminals from spring to fall. This species is native to northern Mexico, growing in washes and slopes in arid regions.

When trained as a shrub, it can be used as a screen plant or as a tree for a patio or courtyard planting. Mexican bird of paradise is fast-growing, adapted to desert themes or tropical landscapes

All of the birds of paradise produce seedpods during the summer. The seed may be collected and germinated to produce new plants. First sand or abrade the outside of the seed to remove the shine and make the seed coat thinner. You can use sandpaper or a fingernail file. Next boil some water and drop the seeds into the hot water for about three minutes. Then add cold water to drop the temperature of the water to around 110 degrees Fahrenheit and let the seeds sit overnight. The seed coat and membrane will peel off and you can plant the seed in potting soil. New plants should emerge in about a week. Do not over-water or the seed may rot. When the plants are six inches tall, set them out in the desired location.

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