UF/IFAS Okeechobee County Extension Service

458 Highway 98 North

Okeechobee, FL 34972-2578

Phone: (863) 763-6469

Revised Edition:  24 April 2009 

Original  Release:  17 June 2001

Daniel F. Culbert, County Extension Agent

Quick Links: Travelers Palm    Giant or White Bird of Paradise     Growing Travelers & Birds   Pruning and Freeze Damage  References  Q/A

Traveler Trees & White Birds for Tropical Tastes

A few years ago an advertisement for a Florida bank described some of the tropical plants that new residents would be likely to see in Florida. I remember one of these unusual items was a "Travelerís Palm," which was shown as a palm tree with legs, an armful of luggage, and of course, it was wearing a floral print shirt. While that impression is obviously a fantasy, the Travelerís Palm is indeed found growing in some of our local Florida Yards.

Todayís column will describe the use and care of this plant in our local landscapes and compare it to a similar looking plant, the White Bird of Paradise. I have put this column together from information on these tropical landscape plants from University of Florida Horticulturist Dr. Bejan Dehgan.

 

Although it is sometimes called a Travelerís Palm or Travelerís Tree, Ravenala madagascariensis is not a palm, but is more closely related to bananas. Among its closest relatives in the Strelitziaceae family are the true Birds of Paradise (Strelitzia spp.) and the "false" birds of paradise (Heliconia spp.). The Giant or White Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) may be confused with the Travelerís Tree because of its similar appearance, but may be a better choice for our area because of its slight advantages in the areas of cold and salt tolerance and diminished height.

Traveller Tree at Vero Beach office. Traveler's Tree or "Traveler's Palm." Photo by Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS Flower of the White Bird of Paradise Flower of the White Bird of Paradise. Photo by Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

   Clump of Traveler Tree near Indian River White Bird of Paradise. Photo by Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

A TALL DRINK OF WATER

The common name Travelers Palm comes from a large cup shaped leaf base which is able to hold a cup or two of water to quench the thirst of a parched traveler. Travelerís trees can be impressive plants in tropical (USDA Hardiness Zone 10) areas, reaching to heights of 30 feet. On well maintained specimens that have not been touched by frost, the large banana-like foliage bound to a stout, ringed stem. They form an erect canopy arranged into a large fan-like pattern that can spread open as much as 15 feet wide. A fallacy often associated with this plant is that the foliage orients itself in an east/west direction.

This native of Madagascar may produce small whitish flowers tucked inside a series of boat-shaped bracts. There may be as many as a dozen of these florlets growing on a single spike. In its native habitat, the flowers are reportedly pollinated by lemurs, which are small primates. If pollinated by human hands in our area, a 4-inch long bright blue capsule may produce many 1/4 inch seeds. There is another species of Ravenala found in northern South America (R. guyanesis) that has scarlet-red capsules and is slightly smaller in size.

Ravenala need rich, moist but well-drained soil and a sunny spot in a hot climate. Provide them with shelter from strong winds which will tatter the leaves. A leaf-spot disease (Cercospora) is sometimes a concern with these tropical treasures, and for best appearance, the suckers at the base should be removed to produce a single-trunked plant. In our coastal Indian River area, their larger size, minimal tolerance to salt and drought, and greater sensitivity to cold temperatures may make them less desirable than the Giant or White Bird of Paradise.

 

GIANT WHITE BIRDS FOR YOUR PARADISE

Many are familiar with the Bird of Paradise flower, an unusual orange and blue flower that exudes a taste of tropical splendor. The Giant Bird of Paradise or the White Bird of Paradise are larger sized cousins of this more familiar Bird of Paradise plant. This South African native is more commonly planted in our area than the Travelerís Tree because of itís greater ability to withstand cold (USDA Hardiness Zone 9b), and its ability to handle slightly higher levels of drought and salt. This is one of the hardiest accent plants for around the pool or as an entrance specimen.

The species name for the White Bird of Paradise is Strelitzia nicolai, so named to honor Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich the elder, the third son of a czar of Russia. Some plant references may mention the name S. alba, which is a different species that is commonly referred to as the Giant Bird or Great White Strelitzia.  These plants may be distinguished by their mature height: the White Bird may reach 13- 15 feet, while the Giant Bird can keep growing and reach of 30 feet. Flower characteristics should also be used to determine the identification of these species.

A careful examination of the foliage of the Giant Bird of Paradise can be used to distinguish it from the Travelerís Tree. The leaf stalk (petiole) of the Giant Bird is generally about as long as the flat blade of this plant, and it lacks the large "travelerís cup" found in the Travelerís Tree. The leaf blade of the Giant Birds are also generally wider than the Travelerís Tree.  Also, the leaves of the Bird donít droop as much and are often less tattered than the foliage of the Traveler Tree.

Flowers of the White Birds are similar in shape to its familiar orange and blue cousin. However, the outer "petals" are white, while the inner true petals are dark purple-blue in color. The flowers can be 6 -12 inches long, and if pollinated, will produce many seeds in the resulting capsule. Plants need to be a few years old before they will flower.

GROWING TRAVELING BIRDS

The question of size is an important point. The White Birds have gained favor as indoor foliage plants, and when they outgrow their containers, the homeowner helps them to travel into the landscape. When placed close to a building, they can soon outgrow their spot and a constant battle is fought with the pruning shears in the attempt to keep them in place.

Another pruning war occurs when the root suckers are allowed to grow up into full-sized mature plants. A massive clump can become a security hazard in some urban landscapes; a few years ago a county had to remove two Giant Birds that provided a wonderful hiding place for vagrants at one public building.

Growing the White Birds in our Florida Yards is fairly easy if they are given an adequate room to grow. They do not tolerate wet feet, so choose sites that have well drained soils. Give them adequate fertilizer and moisture during establishment. Be on the lookout for scale insects, which are best managed with insecticidal soap sprays.

Birds of Paradise and Travelerís trees may be propagated by dividing the clumps or grown from seed. Divisions of offshoots from the main plant grow vigorously. Seeds are very slow to germinate and may take up to 18 months to get started . Place seeds in sterilized sand and then in total darkness. Once seeds have sprouted, transplant them into individual pots.

 

PRUNING, DIVISION AND FREEZE RECOVERY

Two issues come to mind with these plants, and judging from the many calls and emails that I have received, it's time to reinforce two important rules with these plants:

Improper Placement!                     Failure to Thin!

White Bird crowding wall White Bird uder Powerline. Traveller Tree Suckering
The widening clump of this White Bird will block the view from inside, and will block the side walk.  Photo by Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS Notice the Powerlines?  This may become a problem as the plant gets taller. Photo by Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS See all the little suckers?  They will get big and make a thick clump if nit pruned out.  Cut them off when small - it will be easier! Photo by Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

 

Pruning for Freeze Recovery!

Frozen Leaves Where to cut; where new leaves appear After Freeze pruning
A February Freeze in this central Florida backyard turned this tropical beauty into a burned bird.  Where to prune?  Remove the frozen leaves on the red lines.  The Green circle shows where the new leaf should emerge if the stem's top bud was not damaged. Recovery! April 15, 2009. A little more pruning of the leaf bases can be done when more new growth appears. 

All photos courtesy of Mike Haus

I'm always looking for good photos that show any pruning, thinning or division of these tropicals.  Send me an email first if you have photos to share!

If you need additional information on Travelerís Trees or White Birds of Paradise, visit our Master Gardeners, or call or stop by our office. For those with other questions about Florida Yards, our office holds Master Gardener Clinic hours at the Extension office.  My  phone number is 863-763-6469 and you can e-mail me at indianco@ufl.edu 

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REFERENCES

Copeland, Danielle.  Danielle's Garden Blog. February 2, 2008.  http://www.daniellecopeland.com/2008/02/10-free-plants-after-1-year.html 

Culbert, Dan. Divide and conquer your Clumping tropicals. UF/IFAS Okeechobee Co. Extension Service. 9/2/2008.  http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/Tropical.Division.htm 

Gilman, Edward F. and  Watson, Dennis G. Travelers Tree (ST-565) Gainesville: Florida Cooperative Extension Service, 10/94.  http://hort.ufl.edu/trees/RAVMADA.pdf 

ibid. White Bird of Paradise (ST-604) Gainesville: Florida Cooperative Extension Service, 10/94. http://hort.ufl.edu/trees/STRNICA.pdf 

 

Q/A:

My name is Mike. I live in Boca Raton, Fl.  I have two beautiful Travelers Palms growing in soil in my courtyard of my townhouse.  They are flowering and very healthy.  I would love to find out how I can detach the offshoots that are growing from the base of these palms in order to plant them elsewhere.  I have tried unsuccessfully in the past by simply cutting as close to the base as possible and planting in soil.  Thank you in advance for any help you might be able to send my way.

The key to success will be to get a big enough offshoot that will make it through the process of ripping it away from the mother plant; it needs to have enough food energy stored in the sucker to allow it to survive the process of growing its own root system and producing enough leaves to be ale to make its own food.  If possible the sucker should have its own roots or at least some root initials at its base.  

Iíd suspect that the sucker should be larger that 3 feet tall or more. The challenge will be digging around the mother plant without totally damaging its root system in the process of harvesting the sucker.   

After removing the sucker, Iíd put it in a large pot of well drained potting soil and place it in a shaded area. Provide lots of water, and not fertilizer until you begin to see new leaves appear from the center of the offshoot.  When new leaves appear, new roots have begun to grow.  After that point, gradually move it into sunnier locations, keeping up with adequate water, and add fertilizer as appropriate. (DFC, 4/06)

Ground OrchidDivide and Share! 

I have received many questions concerning how to divide clumping tropical  plants. 

In looking for photos showing how to divide Ravenala, I  found some outstanding photos showing the process using a Ground Orchid (Spathoglottis) taken by Danielle Copeland .   Click here to see her photos - and thanks for sharing, Danielle!

Hello! We live in California (zone 9) and recently our giant birds were damaged with the rare cold and frost.  I know we must wait until spring to prune them, but do you have any tips on the best way to prune them back? - Dorina -

 

Sorry about the freeze Ė I guess yíall will have to enjoy FLORIDA citrus instead of the California kind!  Cleaning up frost damage is a balancing act between what is appropriate for the plant and what we as gardeners wish to see. Resist the temptation to remove damaged plant parts until the danger of other frosts occurs.  The dead and damaged plant parts will serve as insulation for the live plant parts that are presumably inside the clump of your Ravenala. Once the last frost date is past and new growth has begun, start by removing outer leaves, leaving the center ďflagsĒ intact.  You may decide if the clump is too crowded, some of the individual shoots can be thinned out. Cut them as low to the ground as you can get in there with pruners or saws.  (DFC 2/07)      

Traveler Palm stamp

Rwandan Traveler Palm stamp scan courtesy of Pierre Guertin

The Florida Cooperative Extension Service - Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer authorized to provide research, educational information, and other services to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap, or national origin. Florida Cooperative Extension Service / IFAS /University of Florida. Millie Ferrer-Chancey, Interim  Dean. Last update: 09/21/2011 .  This page is maintained by Dan Culbert.