If you’ve been in Tucson for a few months, you’ve no doubt noticed the ubiquitous vivid orange flowered shrubs called the bird of paradise. You may be surprised to know that there are in fact three species of the Caesalpinia plant genus that are available in local nurseries. In addition, if you hail from more tropical regions, you may have a completely different plant in mind when you hear that name, which is the Strelitzia reginae plant.
Common plant names are problematic for this reason: the same name can be used for different species of plants, sometimes ones 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 a near-native to the Sonoran desert.
Red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima): This plant is seen in many yards around Tucson. It’s quite drought-tolerant and can handle lots of sun. The flowers are a spectacular orange-red and attract pollinators and hummingbirds. Most landscapers cut these down to the ground every fall, because they tend to get a little leggy if they’re not trimmed regularly and they only produce flowers on new growth. However, if allowed to grow without trimming they will produce new growth on older branches. I have a plant in front of my house that is around 10 feet tall that has not been trimmed in several years. It is a bit leggy, and judicious pruning of certain branches fills in the lower portions of the plant after it grows taller. This species of Ceasalpinia is the least cold-tolerant, and can suffer damage around 32 F but usually grows back without fail in the spring. It is somewhat toxic to dogs, cats, and horses.
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Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia 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 a deep, lush green with beautiful delicate round leaflets. It seems to grow well almost anywhere in my yard – and I tend to have some volunteers as well! It provides beautiful dappled shade, and the flowers are a big draw for bumblebees – 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 around 18 F. They can be trimmed to a tree shape if that is your preference and can get to about 12-15 feet tall. Like the red bird of paradise, it is toxic to pets.
Yellow bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii): The showpieces of this plant are the flowers, which are a lemony-yellow with long, red, showy stamens. The form of this large shrub can be a bit scraggly and irregular, and the plant loses its leaves in the winter, but in spring when it flowers it provides quite a show. They can get around 10 feet tall and nearly as wide, and do well in either sun or part-shade. It’s tolerant to around 15 F. It’s been known to escape cultivation and sometimes shows up in our washes, so some discourage its use in landscapes. It is toxic to dogs and cats.
Bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae): This plant is totally unrelated to the Caesalpinia genus, and hails from South Africa. You may have seen it in gardens in southern California, Florida and Hawaii. It’s hardy to around 25-30 F (for a very brief duration) and does best when temps are over 50 F, which makes it viable in warmer microclimates in Tucson (or as a container plant that gets brought inside in the winter). The flowers are a spectacular sunny orange with blue-violet central spikes. It’s relatively drought-tolerant, and not fussy about soil. It tends to flower several times per 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 location with morning sun and afternoon shade. It’s somewhat toxic to cats, dogs, and horses, but less so than the Caesalpinia species, and it is not toxic to humans.
For a handy comparison of the three Ceasalpinia species, check out this guide from the University of Arizona extension office: Bird of paradise shrubberies for the low desert.
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