is a tall, striking foliage plant related to the well-known crane
flower, Strelitzia reginae.
The Natal wild banana grows mostly in coastal dune vegetation and
in evergreen forests near the coast. 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.
The Natal wild banana grows up to 12m high and 4m wide. It is an
evergreen tree with multi-stems that form dense clumps. The stem
is woody and smooth in texture. It is light to dark grey in colour
and marked with old leaf scars. 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 2m in
length. These tear in the wind and come to resemble giant feathers.
Although not related to the true bananas or the wild banana Ensete
ventricosum, the leaves and growth habit of S. nicolai
are somewhat similar and probably account for the common name.
flower of the Natal wild banana is a typical crane-flower inflorescence,
up to 500mm 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 the bird, with a white crest
and purple beak. The tree flowers throughout the year with a peak
in spring-summer. The inflorescence is compound (more than one flower).
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.
The name Strelitzia was given to honour Queen Charlotte,
the wife of King George III of England. She was from the house of
Mecklenburg-Strelitz. There has been some confusion over which Nicholas the specific epiphet 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.
Leaf stalks are dried and used to make a rope for building fish
kraals and huts. The immature seeds are edible and tasty. 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.
Growing Strelitzia nicolai
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.
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.
- Gartenflora 1858(266)
- Grant, R and Thomas, V. 1998. Sappi Tree Spotting Kwazulu-Natal.
Jacana Publishers. Johannesburg.
- Jackson, W.P. 1990. Origins and Meanings of Names of South Africa.
UCT Publishers. Cape Town.
- Pooley, E 1993. Trees of Natal. Natal flora Publication. Durban.
- Van Wyk, B and Van Wyk, P. 1997. Trees of South Africa. Struik
Publishers. Cape Town.
Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden
with additions by Yvonne Reynolds