Strelitzia nicolai (Giant Strelitzia)
Plant image

This evergreen multi-stemmed tree with striking foliage is related to the well-known crane flower, Strelitzia reginae. It can form very large, dense clumps.

Name & classification

Botanical name:
Strelitzia nicolai

Common names:
Giant Strelitzia, Natal Wild Banana (English); Natal Wildepiesang (Afrikaans); Igceba (isiZulu)
Ikhamanga (Xhosa)

Plant family:
Strelitziaceae

Plant categories:
Trees; Shrubs

SA tree no:
34

Name derivation & history:
Strelitzia reginae was introduced in England in 1733 and was named after Queen Sophia Charlotte, the wife of George the 3rd of England. She was a princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, hence the genus name Strelitzia.

There has been some confusion over which Nicholas the specific epithet honours, but original description in Gardenflora states that the name nicolai is in honour of Grand duke Nikolai Nikolaievich the elder, third son of Czar Nicholas I of Russia, and not for the Czar himself.

Although not related to the true bananas or the wild banana (Ensete ventricosum), the leaves and growth habit of Strelitzia nicolai are somewhat similar and probably account for the common name.

Pictures

Features

Leaf habit:
Evergreen

Height:
12 metres

Width:
4 metres

Plant shape:
Tall multi-stemmed tree that forms dense clumps with enormous, opposite, shiny and grey-green leaves that are attached to the stem by long, thick leaf stalks.

Leaf description:
Attached to the stem by long, thick leaf stalks are the enormous, opposite leaves that are shiny and grey-green in colour, with blades capable of reaching up to 2 metres in length. These tear in the wind and come to resemble giant feathers.

Flower description:
The flower of the Natal wild banana is a typical Crane flower inflorescence, up to 50cm long. The flowers of this tree have white sepals with blue petals and consist of 5 purplish blue, boat-shape sheaths.

The whole flower resembles the head of a bird, with a white crest and purple beak. The tree flowers throughout the year with a peak in spring to summer. The inflorescence is compound (more than one flower).

Flower colour:
White sepals with blue petals and purplish-blue, boat-shaped sheaths

Flowering months:
All year, but peaking in November to February

Fruit description:
The fruit is a hard woody capsule that splits from the apex.

Seed description:
The seeds are black in colour, with a tuft of a bright orange woolly aril on the lobe. They are produced mostly in March to July.

Bark or stem description:
The stem is woody and smooth in texture. It is light to dark grey in colour and marked with old leaf scars

Other distinctive features:
These plants have an incredible root system made up of large fleshy finger-like roots.

Habitat

Natural distribution:
It is a common feature of the coastal vegetation from East London northwards. It grows in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and up into Mozambique towards Zimbabwe.

Habitat:
The Natal wild banana grows mostly in coastal dune vegetation and in evergreen forests near the coast.

Water requirements:
Little water required, but does best with plenty of summer water

Frost tolerance:
Semi-hardy (tolerates mild frost for short periods)

Light conditions:
Sun; semi-shade

Other Characteristics

Drought resistant
Wind resistant
Salt spray resistant
Has aggressive roots
Disease resistant
Pest resistant

Edibility & Toxicity

Edible seeds
We have no confirmation that any part of this plant is toxic, however we urge caution as this information may be incorrect.

Ecology

Interaction with physical surroundings:
The flowers provides nectar that attracts sunbirds, especially Olive Sunbirds and Grey Sunbirds.

Vervet and Samango monkeys feed on the soft part of the flowers as well as on the orange aril of the seeds.

Birds and blue duiker also feed on the flowers.

Frogs and ducks often shelter in the clumps along rivers for protection.
Attracts birds
Attracts insects
Attracts mammals
Attracts frogs

Other information

Uses & Cultural aspects:
Leaf stalks are dried and used to make a rope for building fish kraals and huts.

The immature seeds are edible and tasty.

Cultivation:
The Natal wild banana is fairly drought tolerant, but it does not tolerate severe frost, so plant it in a protected spot inland. It withstands salty coastal winds, making it a good feature plant or screen for coastal gardens.

Strelitzia nicolai is an eye catching evergreen, effective throughout the year and is useful for creating a lush, tropical effect. It can be used to offset hard landscaping, buildings and pools etc. It also looks good contrasted with evergreen lawns and shrubs.

The root system is aggressive, however, so don't plant it too close to structures and paths. Surprisingly it will even survive it a large pot for several years, and this may be the best way to grow it if you have a patio or small garden.

The easiest way to propagate this tree is from root suckers, but it will also grow from seed.

To grow from seed remove the orange arils and sow seed in a mixture of equal parts river sand and compost. Cover with a thin layer of compost and keep moist. Keep seedlings in a shady spot for the first season. Once planted out this plant is fast growing. It will grow in semi-shade or full sun and requires a moderate amount of water, composted soil and space to spread.

Similar species:
Strelitzia nicolai is one of five Strelitzia species in southern Africa: Strelitzia alba, Strelitzia juncea, Strelitzia reginae and Strelitzia caudata.

References:
South African National Biodiversity Institute, South Africa.

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