By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
The growing and care of Mexican bird of paradise plant (Caesalpinia mexicana) isn’t difficult; however, this plant is commonly confused with the other species in this genus. Although they all basically share the same growing requirements, it’s still important that you are aware of the subtle differences between the plants so you can get the most from your gardening experience.
Known as Mexican bird of paradise (along with many other common names), the red bird of paradise (C. pulcherrima) is oftentimes confused with the actual Mexican bird of paradise tree (C. mexicana). While both species are considered shrubs or small trees and both are evergreen in frost-free regions and deciduous in others, they are two different plants.
Unlike the red bird of paradise, the Mexican variety has bright yellow flowers with long red stamens. The red bird of paradise has showy red blooms and fern-like foliage. There is also a yellow variety (C. gilliesii), of which is similar looking to C. pulcherrima, only a different color.
All species generally bloom in summer or year round in tropical climates.
Growing Mexican bird of paradise (along with other species) is easy when given suitable conditions. This plant makes a fine specimen planting or you can grow it as a shrub in a mixed border. It can also be grown in a container, which works especially well in colder regions.
When growing Mexican bird of paradise, you should keep in mind its overall size, which can reach up to 15 feet (4.5 m.) tall with a similar spread. This plant is considered drought tolerant, thriving in well-draining soil and plenty of sun. While it can take some shade, its blooms will not be as profuse in these areas.
Until it becomes well established in the landscape, you’ll need to keep the plant watered weekly and it may require fertilization while in bloom.
Once established, Mexican bird of paradise requires little care, other than the occasional pruning to keep it manageable and neat. This is often performed in winter (when it dies down naturally) and is usually pruned a third back or to the ground.
Those grown in pots can be overwintered indoors and cut back as needed.
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Yellow bird of paradise as tree form compressed. (Photo: submitted)
Question: My Mexican Bird of Paradise was gorgeous this year, the best ever. The flowers are now going to seed pods. Should I cut it back? What is the proper way to care for this plant as it moves into fall and winter?
Answer: The Mexican bird of paradise plant name is used by homeowners to describe two different but similar plants. They look similar except for the color of the flowers. The one with all yellow flowers, true Mexican bird of paradise, is more cold hardy than its cousin and native to South Texas and northern Mexico all the way to Sinaloa.
The other bird of paradise is more beautiful and has combined red, orange and yellow flowers. This red flowered shrub is subtropical and can be found in the Caribbean, the South Pacific including Hawaii and all over tropical Asia.
It freezes to the ground in our climate when temperatures dip into the mid-20s. In the spring it regrows again and flowers. For these reasons we call it in our climate an “herbaceous perennial”. Trees and shrubs are “woody perennials”.
There is no "right way" or "wrong way" to prune or manage this plant except don’t let anyone prune it into a gumball. If the plant looks good and you like it, leave it alone. Remove some of the largest stems near the soil level every three or four years and let it regrow from the base.
If it's getting too tall, early next February, cut the stems back to a foot or foot and a half above the ground and let it regrow. Each cut will make two or three new stems that will grow shorter and slower than the single original stem. The plant will be denser with more flowers. With this kind of pruning, it will not look as natural as it would if you just left alone.
Fertilize it with a rose type fertilizer in February and lightly water it in. If you don't like the seed pods then remove them. It won't hurt the plant.
Prune in January or February. Prune it if you don't like its size, shape or density or prune two or three of the largest stems at the base every 3 to 4 years if you love everything about it.
Question: Can you please tell me if it is possible or not to use volcanic rock dust on a Venus fly trap to promote its growth?
Answer: Rock dust is a marketing term which means a very finely ground powder from different sources that contains dozens of minerals in small quantities. It is thought that soils which are used for a very long time become depleted of some minerals that cannot be replaced with fertilizers. Recently, this term has become a hot topic among gardeners in the social media like YouTube and some gardening internet blogs.
I became interested in it because I was getting questions regarding its use. I experimented with three different kinds of rock dust and compared them for one growing season in some raised vegetable beds. All of the raised beds were composted, as they would be, normally, at the start of a growing season.
Perhaps it promotes growth in soils that do not have enough nutrients but I did not test that. I have not seen any advantages to vegetable growth when it is applied to raised beds and the soil has been composted and amended correctly.
It does not hurt anything to apply it in small quantities and it can be inexpensive insurance if you want to be sure. You don’t need much.
Venus flytrap in nature grows on very poor soils. It gets its nutrients primarily from the soil when it can get it. Alternatively, they also take nutrients from small insects that walk or fly into their trap. They evolved this way because of the poor soils. But catching insects and devouring them is an alternative to getting nutrients from the soil or leaves.
Regardless, the soil must drain well when growing these plants. Lava rock, perlite or pumice will help in that regard. They like high humidity so growing them in an enclosed terrarium will help. Adding rock dust to the soil will not hurt it. But help it? Perhaps if the soil is lacking in any of the plant nutrients found in the rock dust.
Personally, I would use liquid fertilizer sprayed on the foliage much like you would orchids. This plant would like very much compost tea applied this way. They do not like rich, wet soils.
Question:Last November my next door neighbor’s African sumac trees were pruned to a trunk and branches. They were cut back so much I was sure they were being removed but was told they would leaf again. They did and are green and a lovely, smaller shape. I am planning to take the plunge with my tree but was advised to wait until February to avoid freezing damage. What should I do?
Answer: I will get to the February pruning. There is a right way and wrong way to radically prune large trees to a much smaller size. African sumac trees will survive this kind of pruning and you can get a much smaller tree. But the resulting growth from this tree will be weakly attached to the main trunk and large branches. This results in a lot of future wind damage to the tree and will cost more money to have this repaired later.
Radical pruning that dramatically reduces the size of a tree must always be done during the winter months. Winter freezing damage to this tree does not happen very often here so I am not overly concerned about waiting until February. Not a bad idea though if the tree will look ugly until it regrows.
We are talking about African sumac now. This type of pruning will not work on all large trees. If this type of pruning had been done to most ash trees, it would’ve killed them.
The acceptable method for reducing the size of larger trees is a technique called “drop crotching”. This technique identifies the tallest limbs and removes them at a “crotch” in the tree, using a clean cut that leaves no stubs. When cutting trees in this way, the height is reduced but strong limbs remain to support the canopy and reduces future wind damage.
Basically, “drop crotching” can be done to any large tree, not just African sumac. The type of pruning you saw done to your neighbor’s trees only works on trees that sucker easily from larger limbs.
Dramatically reducing the size of trees by pruning is best left to tree care professionals, certified arborists, who have passed rigorous exams demonstrating that they understand and can practice highly specialized form of pruning correctly. They are more expensive but they know how to do it correctly.
Question: I have a 12-year-old Chinaberry and I am trying to decide whether to keep it or not. I enjoy it in the spring because of its showy flowers but it has some dieback in the limbs and I fear it could be sooty canker disease. If it is sooty canker disease, is it necessary to remove immediately or could I keep it for at least one more spring? If so, should the affected limbs be removed now?
Answer: Sooty canker disease attacks many different types of trees and large shrubs including fruit trees. It causes limbs to die. If it spreads into the trunk, the tree should be removed. If it is only in the limbs, the infected limbs can be removed and the tree saved.
Yes, you could prune now with no problems. But you could wait a few months as it does not spread quickly.
This disease is easy to identify because dead limbs have bark that easily pulls from the “wood”. On the wood, under the bark, will be a black, sooty “dust” that looks just like soot from a chimney. It easily comes off on your fingers when you rub it, just like a sooty chimney. Spreading this “soot” is one way this disease can infect other trees.
Regardless, the tree needs to be pruned to remove dead limbs. Once the dead limbs are down it may be easier to see if it is sooty canker disease. When pruning, make sure the saw is sanitized BETWEEN cuts with diluted bleach or Pinesol.
If the dead limbs are only infecting the branches it is possible to save the tree by removing them. Be very careful to sanitize any equipment that comes in contact with infected plant parts.
Sooty canker usually attacks unhealthy trees. Make sure the tree is receiving enough water and receives a single fertilizer application each year in early spring.
The zones eight and above are perfect places where you can start growing Mexican Bird Of Paradise but in the same zone eight and nine, the flower is likely to die down during the winter season.
For those who reside in Northern regions, the best place where Mexican Bird Of Paradise can be grown is in planters. The plant would then be brought indoors when the temperature outside eventually drops. Well-drained soil is what you really need in a container when you want to grow the Mexican Bird Of Paradise.
Even though we all know that the Mexican Bird Of Paradise is disease resistant plant, it is also vulnerable to rot especially when it finds itself in a soggy soil condition.
Regular potting mix that is combined using either perlite or sand is what you should fill your container with when you want to grow the Mexican Bird Of Paradise in a container and beneath this container, there has to be a drainage hole.
A sturdy pot like Terra Cotta is what you must use if you decide to grow Mexican Bird Of Paradise in a container.
This specie of plant is famous for growing extremely quick and when planted in a lightweight container, it has the tendency to blow over or tip over a container. If what you are making use of is a large container then you should make sure that this container is placed on a rolling platform.
This plant should be placed in a sunny and warm spot outdoors during months with warm weather and do not forget to bring the plants indoors before fall’s first frost. It should be placed in a spot where it would have access to sun.
During the winter season, you should also have it at the back of your mind that this plant is likely to lose leaves especially if there is no bright sunlight. This is however a normal occurrence because the lack of sunlight is bound to set off a period of semi dormancy so this is why you need to water this plant during the growing season moderately.
Its soil should not be soggy and never should its container be allowed to stand on water. It is ideal that you water this plant sparingly when the winter months come.
Regular fertilization is what the Mexican Bird Of Paradise needs for it to bloom heavily so this plant should be well fed with a time-release fertilizer every few months. A water-soluble weak solution fertilizer should also be used in supplementing when feeding the Mexican Bird Of Paradise every other week but during the winter months, it is ideal that you fertilize this plant lightly or do not fertilize at all.
Every year, this plant would develop from rhizomes which is bound to multiply year after year and when it is slightly crowded, that is when it blooms.
You should also re-pot using a slightly larger pot when it is necessary.
During the first six months after planting, plants need regular watering to help them establish in the landscape. Aim for a balance — not too wet and not too dry. Yellowing leaves signal both too much and not enough water. Rely on touching the soil to see if it's dry before you water. Once plants are established, water plants deeply during the growing season, letting soil dry before watering. In winter, as growth slows, water only when soil is very dry to the touch.
As a cut flower, bird of paradise pairs tropical finery with a long vaselife of two weeks. The flashy flowers pair beautifully with green button mums and bear grass stems.
The Mexican bird of paradise, Caesalpinia mexicana, is an evergreen ornamental shrub that is native to areas in Mexico. The shrub grows well in Tucson, Arizona, as it is hardy to plant in USDA growing zones 9 and 10. This bird of paradise does not resemble the tropical variety instead it grows to a height of 10 to 15 feet and produces spikes with clusters of yellow flowers. Caesalpinia mexicana forms seed pods filled with poisonous seeds shaped like lima beans.
Plant the bird of paradise in a well-draining soil. The shrub grows best in full light conditions but will tolerate partial shade. The bird of paradise shrub is tolerant of the soil types found in Tucson.
Set the shrub in a hole that is two to three times the width of the root ball and the same depth as it was growing in the container it came in. Work organic compost into the removed soil to increase the nutrient value and water-draining property of the soil. Water the hole while filling it with soil to prevent air pockets from forming.
Water the bird of paradise shrub with 1 inch of water each week during the growing season. The plant has low water requirements and does not need supplemental water during the winter months.
Plant a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch around the base of the plant and over the root ball area. Leave a 3-inch gap between the start of the mulch and base of the plant stem. Mulch will increase moisture retention in the soil.
Fertilize the bird of paradise shrub with a 10-10-10 fertilizer every two weeks during the summer growing season. Apply water after fertilizing to promote absorption into the soil.
Remove dead or damaged branches by cutting them with a pruning clipper. Prune to create a desired shape for the shrub during the dormant season. Remove plant pods that fall to the ground as the seeds are poisonous to humans and animals.
Propagate the bird of paradise shrub by collecting and planting seeds. Scarify the seeds before to planting by using sand paper to break through the seed coat. Plant the seeds in individual pots filled with sterile seed starting soil.
Cover the bird of paradise when there is a risk of frost to prevent to the shrub. Tucson is on the edge of USDA growing 8 and 9 and can get periods of cold weather, which the shrub will recover from as long as the ground does not freeze.
Perhaps you have bought a bird of paradise flower for a loved one, or even yourself.
You may not realize that this stunning plant was once an exciting novelty from a foreign land. Now it is a low-care fixture in places with warm climates, such as southern California and Florida.
The plants are popular both for landscaping and growing as houseplants. With proper care, they will thrive and produce up to three dozen flowers a year.
Who says that you can’t have a regal garden of your very own?
Are you growing bird of paradise plants? Tell us about your experience and share your tips in the comments section below.
And for more information on how to grow other unique flowering plants, check out these guides next:
Photo by Helga George © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via 9EzTropical, Costa Farms, and Plants Express. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu and Clare Groom.
One of Helga George’s greatest childhood joys was reading about rare and greenhouse plants that would not grow in Delaware. Now that she lives near Santa Barbara, California, she is delighted that many of these grow right outside! Fascinated by the childhood discovery that plants make chemicals to defend themselves, Helga embarked on further academic study and obtained two degrees, studying plant diseases as a plant pathology major. She holds a BS in agriculture from Cornell University, and an MS from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Helga then returned to Cornell to obtain a PhD, studying one of the model systems of plant defense. She transitioned to full-time writing in 2009.