The strikingly beautiful Bird of Paradise flower is starring in scientific journals this week. The deep coloring on the flowers, which thrive in Hawaii, has unexpected components.
The official name for the Bird of Paradise plant is strelitzia reginae Aiton. It is native to South Africa but blooms all over the Hawaiian Islands. The flower is known both for its shape – which looks like the head of a bird — and for its deep orange and blue colors. The scientific study looked at the fruit of the plant, however, which is pale and overshadowed by the showy flowers. When the fruit matures, a capsule full of bright orange seeds breaks open. Scientists say the color of these seeds can stay the same for decades after the plant dies.
Scientists used tests to analyze the seeds and found that bilirubin is what gives them their distinct color. It is the first discovery of bilirubin in a flower. Bilirubin was thought to exist only in animals. It’s what makes our bruises yellow, and gives those with jaundice a yellowish tinge.
A research team at Florida International University first found bilirubin in the white Bird of Paradise tree. That was a breakthrough finding. The current study expands that research; it is the first discovery of bilirubin in a flower. The study is published in the September 2010 issue of HortScience, an academic journal published by the American Society for Horticultural Science. In the interests of full disclosure, I learned of the study when someone in my Google Buzz stream posted a link to the article this week. My eyes are always drawn to this beautiful flower.
I took this photo of the flowers on my way home Thursday. The Bird of Paradise plant doesn’t always bloom, it follows some sort of seasonal pattern even here. Right now, there are many flowers on this particularly enthusiastic plant in front of a Kailua coffee shop. One of my proudest moments so far in Hawaii was when I could recognize a Bird of Paradise plant by its leaves after the flowers were gone – it took a year. But what a place to do such fieldwork!