A well-tended Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) is a spectacular treat in any indoor gardener’s collection, but it may surprise you to learn just how fragile this elegant tropical truly is.
Their dramatic foliage is vulnerable to damage, surprisingly fragile, and prone to splitting
Splits in your Bird of Paradise plant leaves are a natural response to physical stress and can be avoided by simply treating your plant with care. To help your Bird of Paradise plant resist damage, be sure to support the growth of strong leaves by providing good nutrition, bright but indirect light, and just the right amount of water.
Thankfully while it may come as a shock to find your Bird of Paradise covered in split leaves, it’s actually not that big a deal. Split leaves are a natural part of the plant’s growth, and can be easily avoided.
Let’s take a look at what can cause your Bird of Paradise leaves to split, and what you can do to prevent and treat a plant with damaged leaves.
What Causes Split Bird of Paradise Leaves?
I can’t stress enough that the leaves of the Bird of Paradise have evolved specifically to split. The radial seams on the plant’s leaves have evolved weak points that split when subjected to physical stress.
It’s a trait that prevents this broad-leafed and top-heavy plant from uprooting during strong winds in its tropical home. When the wind blows, the leaf gives way, and the storm can pass harmlessly by.
In an indoor setting, this means most splits will be the result of poor handling of your plant. They don’t do well being manhandled, bumped, or even knocked over.
Its leaves are delicate, and should not be handled roughly. Of course, this also means it’s one of the easier problems to avoid. Just treat your plant gently, and you’ll see fewer splits.
That said, a well-supported and well-nourished plant will resist damage better than one that is neglected and poorly maintained.
All plants must be handled to some degree during their care. Keeping your plant in top condition is critical to preventing leaf splits during routine maintenance like leaf dusting or deep watering.
Here are some factors I’ve noticed lead to more fragile Bird of Paradise plants.
Bird of Paradise likes its soil to be consistently moist. Getting the balance right can be tricky, but it’s worth the effort.
Thirsty plants produce dry, brittle leaves that are more vulnerable to damage, and an over-watered Bird of Paradise is vulnerable to weakened stems and rotting roots that make damage all the more likely.
Water also helps support the structure of the plant by filling out cells.
An under-watered plant is unable to bear the weight of its long lovely leaves, leading to floppy plants that are easily blown about and damaged.
Generally, you should water your Bird of Paradise no more than once a week during the warmer parts of the year. In the winter your plant will fall dormant, and may only need a drink once a month, or even less!
When watering, I always check the soil before I pour out my watering can. The soil should be allowed to dry out between drinks.
Insert a finger into the soil. If the top two inches are dry and loose, it’s time to water. If they are soggy or damp, it’s a good idea to hold off entirely.
This will prevent rot and allow your plant the ideal amount of water to support its growth.
If you’re unsure, the easiest route is to a watering alarm designed to be left in the pot.
Often shaped like songbirds, these tiny devices sound a chime when moisture levels in the soil drop. It’s quite a lifesaver for the busy gardener!
Lack of Humidity
The Bird of Paradise is a tropical plant, native to the jungles of southern Africa. They love a heavy atmosphere dripping with moisture.
If your environment is too dry, the leaves will become dry and fragile, more prone to splitting.
Of course, very few homes are kept at tropical levels of humidity! It’s important to watch your plant’s condition, as air conditioning and central heating can dry your poor plant out.
To improve humidity around your Bird of Paradise, here are some options you should consider.
- Cluster plants together. Every plant releases water vapor through a process known as transpiration. When grouped together they often form a nicely humid micro-climate. The long elegant stalks of the Bird of Paradise make it an excellent candidate for groupings, with plenty of room beneath to cluster smaller plants.
- Use a pebble tray. Fill a wide tray with pebbles or small stones. Add water, reaching perhaps two-thirds the depth of the stones. Then sit your plant on top of the tray. This will allow the water to evaporate and provide reliable local humidity, without forcing your poor Bird of Paradise to sit in standing water.
- Mist your Bird of Paradise once or twice a week. Allow the leaves to dry completely between misting to prevent leaf rot.
- Use an electric humidifier for consistent, reliable humidity.
Excessive Direct Sunlight
Like all houseplants, getting your light balanced just so is critical to caring for your Bird of Paradise.
While the Bird of Paradise particularly enjoys bright light, a full day in an open window will stress the plant and result in fewer, more fragile leaves.
It will also result in dryer conditions for your plant overall, which as I have mentioned will prevent your Bird of Paradise from producing strong leaves.
Your Bird of Paradise is a hungry plant! This species is a heavy feeder, as those gorgeous leaves do not come cheaply.
It requires careful fertilization through the spring and summer growing seasons to ensure it grows well.
Without that extra boost of nutrients, it will be unable to produce leaves capable of keeping it together!
A dose of balanced liquid fertilizer every two weeks during the warm parts of the year will get the job done.
For larger Bird of Paradise plants, it’s worth keeping an eye out for boron deficiency. Stunted and yellowed leaf tips, especially in emerging leaves, may indicate a lack of this vital mineral.
It can also cause the leaves to become brittle and more prone to splitting.
In general, a balanced fertilizer will provide enough boron, but for larger specimens, you can apply a strongly diluted solution of boric acid sprayed lightly over the leaves.
A half teaspoon of powdered boric acid in a gallon of water will provide more than enough. Be careful, however – too much boron is toxic.
It’s also a good idea to repot your Bird of Paradise every two or three years. When repotting:
- Choose a pot that is at most two inches wider than the old one. For larger Bird of Paradise plants, I like to use a heavier material such as ceramic, concrete, or terra cotta to help stabilize what can often become a top-heavy specimen.
- Use a loose medium that is at least one-third organic matter, such as coconut coir or peat moss. This will not only help you to maintain good moisture levels in your pot, but as the material decays it will provide valuable nitrogen and minerals directly to the roots of your plant.
- Make sure your new pot has ample drainage holes.
Repotting is also an excellent time to check for root damage. Over-watering can damage the roots of your plant and make it harder for it to draw nutrients from the soil.
Blackened or soft roots indicate root rot and should be delicately removed with clean shears during repotting. I explain more about root rot here.
Curious Children or Pets
Of course, no amount of careful watering or fertilization will save your plant from curious fingers or the indelicate attention of house pets.
There’s something very satisfying in the way a Bird of Paradise leaf splits so neatly with so little force that even the best-behaved child may find it impossible to resist.
Likewise, a cat or dog digging or snuffling about will damage your plant, especially if it’s knocked over entirely.
Heavens help you if a real bird -like a parrot – decided to crash into your Bird. Beaks, claws, and wings are a definite recipe for disaster.
Not only is it best to keep your Bird of Paradise away from children and animals, but it’s also best for them, too.
Bird of Paradise plants contains irritating compounds in their leaves that can cause eye and skin problems, and are poisonous to eat.
Just keep your plant away from children and animals and everyone involved will be far better off.
This goes without saying – a dropped plant is going to get hurt! Handle your plant with care, especially larger specimens that may be in heavier pots.
It’s also a good idea to keep larger, top-heavy specimens close to the ground. A topple from a low table is one thing, but a fall from the top of a high shelf is another matter entirely.
Bird of Paradise leaves are a delight to behold, richly colored and inviting to the touch, but it’s best to leave them alone. It doesn’t take much roughhousing at all to split them.
It’s a good idea to limit your contact with the leaves. Avoid placing your plant anywhere it may experience casual contact, like hallways or near doors, and away from strong breezes.
It’s also a good idea to be gentle when dusting or cleaning leaves. I’ve had great success with placing my Bird of Paradise plants under a showerhead for a gentle rain every month or so during the hotter parts of the year.
It mimics the rainfall of their native habitat and gives them good deep water while clearing dust or debris from the leaves.
How to Fix Split Bird of Paradise Leaves.
Regrettably, once a leaf is split there’s no going back. The split is permanent. Thankfully this does not hurt the plant, and a split here and there only adds to the character of your plant.
The damage is largely cosmetic, and the leaf is still capable of photosynthesizing. If the appearance of the split bothers you, older leaves can be trimmed away, but younger leaves should be left to do their job.
Tips on Preventing Further Leaf Splitting
The key to preventing splits is to treat your Bird of Paradise gently. Make sure it’s positioned in your home away from strong winds or passing traffic.
Keeping curious children and pets away from your plant is a great idea all round, too – Birds of Paradise are mildly toxic and can cause skin and eye irritation if not treated respectfully.
Lastly, keep an eye on water levels, and make sure you provide your Bird of Paradise with ample fertilization during the growing season so it can grow strong leaves from the start.
Other Leaf Problems for Bird of Paradise Plants
Despite being a fan of bright light, even a Bird of Paradise can have too much of a good thing. Blotchy, irregular browning distributed on the surface of the leaf is a sign of sunburn. Be sure to never leave your Bird of Paradise in full sunlight for extended periods of time.
Brown Leaf Spots
Spotted leaves can be caused by a number of things, ranging from nutritional deficiencies to pest infestations.
Generally, they are easy to treat, and your average Bird of Paradise is hardy enough to respond well and recover quickly.
I covered the most common causes of leaf spots and how to treat them in this post here, so pop over and have a read if your split leaves are also showing signs of brown spots.
Rot is a pervasive problem with all house plants, and Bird of Paradise is no different. Soft, mushy stems festooned with dark marks blighting the leaves show that your poor plant has a case of black rot.
It usually starts at the root and moves up the plant, devouring it from the ground up. Caused by one of a few different fungal infections, the biggest contributing factor is over-watering.
No tropical plant wants wet feet, so avoid the hassles and watch your water levels carefully.
Always ensure your pot is allowed to dry out somewhat between watering. For more information, I go into a great deal of detail about rot here.
Your Bird of Paradise is a fantastic addition to your home. With a bit of care, its showy but surprisingly delicate leaves can be preserved.
Good watering habits, the right fertilization, and a gentle hand will all help you get the best out of your Bird of Paradise.