6 August 2012

The Bird of Paradise Without Wings

This particular bird has no wings and will never fly. However, people around the world will stop and gawk at its flightless beauty. Take a look at the bird of paradise without wings.

Back in 1773 there was a buzz at the Royal Gardens of Kew, situated just outside of London. The Director, Sir Joseph Banks was about to introduce a new flower to the collection and he had named it after the Queen of the time. Queen Charlotte was the Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz so this exotic new addition was called Strelitzua reginae in her honor. To the inhabitants of eighteenth century England the flower, then, represented the epitome of courtly glamour and its appearance was key to its instant success. However, it was to become best known by its common name – the bird-of-paradise flower. It is easy to see why.

Far away from Kew, the wilds of South Africa are its native habitat where it can be found on river banks and some scrubland and is seen from the Cape Province to Natal. Its one of a kind cousin in England, however, was to have pride of place at Kew – where botanists brought rare specimens from the known world. There is nothing remarkable about the stalk and leaves of the plant – but it is the flower, which bears the common name bird-of-paradise that is the real eye-catcher.

As the bird-of-paradise flowers, its exquisite nature is revealed. Each flower presents itself singly, with three upright sepals of a gorgeous orange accompanied by the same number of intensely blue petals. Perpendicular to its stem, the flowers can confuse the mind for more than a moment. Their structure gives the onlooker the impression that they are witnessing, at first glance, a bird, albeit just a gorgeous crest rising from its rather still and lifeless head!

However, this is not the freakish end result of evolution’s attempt to mimic the shape and size of a bird’s head – it is rather an accident of nature. From the bract (the structure from which the flowers emerge one by one) to the flowers and sepals themselves, the design of this particular plant is not intended to attract similar looking birds. Neither is it to act as a form of camouflage. Rather, it blooms in to this head-turning shape in order to attract the wonderfully named sunbird, which in return for a meal of nectar, will provide the bird-of-paradise flower with the opportunity to create the next generation.

We could not source a picture of a sunbird taking nectar but above you have a beautiful glasswing butterfly doing the same thing. It is taking nectar from the plant and will go on to help the plant reproduce by passing pollen on to another flower (see below for more details).

A pair of petals conjoin in to something which looks like an arrowhead – and the third forms the nectary underneath the flower. A nectary is the gland where the liquid, rich in sugar and a food source to animals known as nectar is stored. The nectar, in this case, is a food source of the sunbird and this brings the two species together in what is known as mutualism – where on species provides something for the other to increase its well being in return for a certain service.

As the bird lands on the arrowhead petals, it parts them and the nectaries are exposed. The nectaries are at the base of the flower as this ensures that a maximum amount of pollen is deposited on to the bird. When the bird eyes another paradise plant to feed on the intention in this mutualism is that it will deposit the first set of pollen on to the stigma of the second plant.

The seeds produced are contained in a waxy brown unprepossessing capsule. However, it does seem to be attractive to birds that will devour the seeds and hopefully deposit them in a new habitat some way from the parent plant.

Feted for its outlandish beauty for centuries, the bird-of-paradise can now be found in parks and gardens throughout the world, and is grown outdoors in warmer climates. Even though temperatures are rising it is still very difficult to grow them in climates such as that enjoyed – or not – by the British. With a dearth of sunbirds it relies on hand pollination for reproduction which, while it is difficult to resist some smutty humor at this juncture – is the only way it will seed in these areas. Wherever it is seen, though, it consistently attracts new fans and is guaranteed to thrill gardeners and casual onlookers alike when in flower.

First Image Credit Flicker User AussieGal