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Topic : Botanical : Fruit

Article 29 bullet 13 April 2007

Natal Wild Banana Strelitzia nicolai 

By Geoff Nichols

Anyone that has lived or holidayed on the KwaZulu-Natal coast in South Africa has to have noticed this plant. It is wind resistant which makes it very suitable for coastal gardens. It will live happily in shade or sun. It is popular as an indoor plant in the huge office blocks of the city. Its huge banana-like leaves are glossy and make excellent plates to serve food on and umbrellas when caught in a sudden burst cloud.

Strelitzia nicolai

The two bird species mainly responsible for the pollination and distribution of Strelitzia nicolai seed along the KwaZulu-Natal coastal region are Olive Sunbird and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird Pogoniulus bilineatus.  

As a habitat for garden wildlife the Strelitzia is second only to a large Fig tree. A word of warning to those of you that want to use this plant near retaining walls. Its vigorous fleshy roots will push anything out of the way. So give it room to expand and show itself in all its glory.

The striking blue and white “crane” flowers of Strelitzia nicolai

The blooms have white sepals and blue petals with a huge dark blue-purple sheath that encloses and protects the many individual flowers within. These “crane” flowers are pollinated by Sunbirds. Monkeys eat the flowers and cause a lot of damage to the flowers in their feeding.

Olive Sunbird Cyanomitra olivacea

Strelitzia nicolai has a sticky pollen (clearly evident where this sunbird has landed) that is transferred to other plants by the feet of these birds – in this case Olive Sunbird Cyanomitra olivacea

Once the fruits form the woody capsules that look like miniature bananas that split to reveal black seeds (good for pea-shooters) surrounded by a fleshy orange covering known as an aril. This is the food for the many Doves, Golden-rumped Tinkerbirds, Samango and Vervet Monkeys, and even Blue Duiker for the arils that end up on the ground dropped by the feeding monkeys above. The night shift is also not forgotten on this plant with the Thick-tailed Galagos feeding on the arils. It took me a few visits to one of my favourite clumps to see these shy noctural beasts feeding on the orange arils.

nectar is concealed in a closed insect-proof cup

The nectar is concealed in a closed insect-proof cup at the base of the flower.

The bases of the leaves can have a little reservoir of water in them to provide water for the breeding ponds of our forest tree frogs especially the Forest Tree Frog (Leptopelis natalensis). If you have a very old clump where the tall stems have started to collapse then the odd Robin will nest in the hollowed out end of the stem.

Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird

The chief disperser of Strelitzia nicolai seed is Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird. This bird feeds on the fluffy orange “aril” and regurgitates the hard black seed.

An evening flying butterfly the Banana Tree Nightfighter (Moltena fiara) lays its eggs on the leaves and the caterpillars feed on the leaves and then roll up the leaf to pupate in. Humans will also use the dried leaf fibre for binding bundles of firewood. Unfortunately this plant is tender to frost so the coastal belt is the ideal growing zone for it.

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