Tag Archives: Joseph Banks

Birds or Bananas? Strelitzia, Musa, and Heliconia

8 Apr

Is it a bird or a banana? When it comes to Bird of Paradise, False Bird of Paradise, Parrot or Parakeet Flower, Macaw Flower, Crane Flower, Banana, Wild Banana, or Wild Plantain–it can be hard to tell which is which. That’s because these tropical plants belong to three closely related families: Strelitiziaceae, Musaceae, and Heliconiaceae. And yes, some look like birds, others look like banana plants, and some actually are banana plants.

Though common plant names can be endearingly whimsical and creative, they often lead to confusion; many plants have multiple common names and the same common name can refer to more than one plant. Today, thanks to binomial nomenclature (and to Google and other easily accessible sources), it is fairly easy to figure out that one person’s Bird of Paradise is someone else’s Crane Flower, and that both, in fact, are the same Strelitizia reginae. 

Carl Linnaeus laid the foundations for binomial nomenclature in his 1753 Species Plantarum. According to the system, all living things must have a scientific name in Latin consisting of two basic parts. The first part identifies the genus; the second part identifies the species within the genus (if, as happened to me, the taxonomic ranks you learned in school have since retreated to the lesser-used recesses of your brain, they are: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.) As an example, the American Robin, a migratory bird in the thrush family, belongs to the genus Turdus (this somewhat unfortunate name means thrush in Latin…) and to the species migratorius within that genus. The European Robin, however, belongs to the genus Erithacus and to the species rubecula, which is derived from the Latin for “red.”

But back to plants that look like birds. In 1773, Sir Joseph Banks (then director of Kew Gardens) took advantage of the system of binomial nomenclature to give the exotic Bird of Paradise plant–with its orange sepals, purple petals, and beak-like spathe–its scientific name (Strelitzia reginae) in honor of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Queen Charlotte was the wife of King George III of England, an enthusiastic amateur botanist, and a strong supporter of Kew Gardens. The genus name Strelitzia refers to the Queen’s birthplace; the species name reginae comes from the Latin for “queen.” Strelitzia nicolai, on the other hand, refers to the Wild Banana, aka the Giant White Bird of Paradise. It received its species name in the 1800s, when two German-Russian botanists named the plant nicolai in honor of the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, son of Czar Nicholas I of Russia. Birds or bananas–those are lofty names indeed. I’m just glad I now know which is which.


Strelitzia reginae (Bird of Paradise) aka Crane Flower in its native South Africa


Strelitzia nicolai (Giant White Bird of Paradise) aka Wild Banana–though it does not produce edible fruit.

 
Strelitzia nicolai, left; an edible banana plant in the Musaceae family, right. They look very similar when not in flower–see the leaves.

  
Heliconia psittacorum (Parakeet or Parrot Heliconia), left; Heliconia bihai (Macaw Flower), right. Heliconia are also known as False Bird of Paradise and Wild Plantains because their leaves are similar to the leaves of the Bird of Paradise and banana plants.

Joseph Banks and the Bottlebrush Tree

10 Feb

During our wanderings around San Diego this past Christmas, we came across many striking trees with bright red, cylindrical flowers that looked like bottle brushes. I was delighted to see them, but they made me feel a bit homesick. Not for Maryland, which has been home for more than a decade now, but for Australia, where we lived for four wonderful years and where these trees are very popular.

They are Crimson Bottlebrushes (Callistemon citrinus)–a shrubby evergreen plant native to Australia that can grow to about 15 feet. It is a plant that loves warm climates with lots of sun, which explains why it is also well suited to Southern California. How it got to the United States, I don’t know, but Joseph Banks, an English naturalist/botanist, introduced it to England in the 18th century. Banks was a member of Captain James Cook’s voyage on the Endeavour (1768-1771), travelling to Madeira, Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and what is now Indonesia. Banks later became an unofficial advisor to King George  III on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and ships returning to England from far and wide brought back plants for his collections. As a result, Kew Gardens became a pre-eminent botanical garden, introducing many of these plants to the rest of Europe.

As for the bottlebrush, it is greatly admired by humans and hummingbirds alike, as I discovered when walking up to the tree to take a photo. I realized at the very last second that a hummingbird was closing in on the flower I had targeted. Had I had my wits about me, I might have taken a better photo (see last photo below), but time and reflexes were not on my side.

Though I cannot grow bottlebrushes in Maryland, I have at least preserved a small but very fond memory of Australia in these photographs, by way of San Diego.