Today world famous, South Africa’s exquisite strelitzias were first recorded in the shade of Robberg. But the trip that uncovered the bird of paradise flower nearly cost the explorers their life. A new book traces the story of these enchanting flowers. By Patricia McCracken and Himansu Baijnath

The sweeping magnificence of the Robberg Peninsula has drawn human beings for millennia, so it’s hardly surprising that this very special nature reserve is both a South African National Monument and a World Heritage Site. For thousands of generations of people, Robberg has been an excellent lookout spot, a place of sanctuary and a source of food – fish, shellfish, small animals and, of course, plants.

As centuries went by, sailors, mapmakers and other explorers, including plant hunters, used it as a landmark in their reports and records. In fact, it was in the shadow of Robberg in November 1772 that Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg made the first known record of a bird of paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae) blooming in the wild.

Strelitzia reginae. Photo by Martina Nolte, Creative Commons

It was a special delight for Thunberg because it meant that his plant-hunting mission in the Cape was getting back on track. Just a couple of days earlier, he and his exploration party had survived a near-death experience.

The risky business of flower hunting

Thunberg was accompanied on his quest by Johann Auge, a Dutch garden specialist, and two military men, DF Immelman and CH Leonardi. As they had approached the nearby Piesang River, a Cape buffalo had charged out of a thicket at them. It killed one of the group’s horses and, in a second pass, gored Thunberg’s horse, leaving it in its death throes.

The strelitzia specimens retrieved by Carl Thunberg in 1772.

As Thunberg admitted in his field diary: “I had neither room to turn my horse round, nor to get on one side. I was therefore obliged to abandon him to his fate, and take refuge in a tolerably high tree, up which I climbed.”

After calling out for them, Thunberg found Auge and Leonardi had also escaped up a tree. As he coaxed them down Leonardi “burst out into tears”, while Auge was so traumatised, he “could scarcely speak for some days after”. In fact, they wanted to turn round and return to the sanctuary of Cape Town where, as Thunberg sardonically put it, “they might get more wine to drink, and be less liable to be frightened by buffaloes”.

While Thunberg left the others to recover for a few days, he visited the seashore, reaching it by crawling across thorny bushes that “tore my hands and clothes quite to tatters”. It meant that he recorded for us one of the early written descriptions of Robberg, “a peninsula… covered with small seashells”. Because it was different from any other mountain he had seen in Africa, Thunberg devoted a detailed paragraph to describing its geology. The first plant he mentions finding in the area was the eye-catching Strelitzia reginae.

The golden strelitzia

In his account of that first strelitzia, Thunberg describes the flower out as being “most beautiful”, but also as “yellow and blue”.

Some 19th-century travellers, such as Cape civil servant Sir John Barrow, also described finding “yellow” strelitzia flowers. Yet by the 21st century, these were considered so rare as to be a “sport”, or occasional abnormal and inconsistent colour.

In fact, it took a dedicated team at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden a decade or so to breed a bird-of-paradise cultivar that would consistently flower yellow and not orange. The result? Mandela’s Gold, a yellow form of the iconic flower.

A yellow strelitzia. Photo by Ernst van Jaarsveld.

Thunberg’s narrow escape from the buffalo was one of many life-and-death adventures for plant hunters that we encountered as we followed the trail of the bird of paradise flower and its relatives to their homes across southern Africa, in Madagascar and in the Amazon. Some discoverers were attacked by pirates in the Caribbean, others stumbled into bloody wars in Madagascar, while yet another died of fever in the depths of the Amazon forests.

While researching the exceptional story of the strelitzias, we traced them through archives and plant collections called herbaria across the world, tracking how they were named after a German-born queen of England, became a favourite of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine and eventually, as international floral icons, were adopted as the emblem of cities as far away as Los Angeles in California and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.

Given their global fame, isn’t it remarkable to think that the five species of strelitzia call South Africa home?

Which strelitzias are local?

Most of the small family of strelitzias are indigenous to South Africa:

Visit some of the most magnificent collections of strelitzias at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. Photo by Alice Notten.

  • Strelitzia reginae subsp. reginae is the shrub most of us know as strelitzia. It is found along the coast from Humansdorp to northern KwaZulu-Natal.
  • Strelitzia reginae subsp. mzimvubuensis is its rarer relative, discovered only about a decade ago in the Transkei.
  • Strelitzia alba is the treelike white wild banana, found in protected gorges along the Garden Route.
  • Strelitzia nicolai, the treelike Natal wild banana, grows along SA’s east coast and up into Mozambique.
  • Strelitzia caudata, the treelike Transvaal wild banana, occurs in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, as well as Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
  • Strelitzia juncea, the shrubby crane flower, is found near Uitenhage.
  • The traveller’s tree (Ravenala madagascariensis) of Madagascar forms part of the Strelitziaceae family.
  • The other relative is Phenakospermum guyannense, which occurs in French Guyana, Suriname, Amazonia, Venezuela and Peru.

Strelitzias of the World (R445) by Himansu Baijnath and Patricia McCracken is published by the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust. The book features more than 200 historic and contemporary illustrations of these much-loved plants.

Find Strelitzias of the World at Exclusive Books (stores and online), as well as the bookshop/visitor centre of Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden and the Durban Botanic Garden. To order directly from the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust, send an email to [email protected].