When it comes to tropical foliage and unique blossoms, Bird of Paradise plants (Strelitzia spp.) are unmatched. They provide a similar aesthetic to banana plants — the two are often mistaken for relatives — but are generally easier to care for. You can even grow Bird of Paradise indoors.
Though these plants deliver tons of ornamental impact for a relatively small effort, Bird of Paradise is far from foolproof. One of the most common complaints growers have is to encounter their Bird of Paradise leaves curling despite good care.
There are several things that can cause Bird of Paradise to curl. In this article, I’ll guide you through the most likely explanations and tell you the best ways to fix them.
Why Do Bird of Paradise Leaves Curl?
Plant leaves most often curl up due to insufficient moisture or intense heat. However, this behaviour can be a natural response to stressful growing conditions of almost any kind.
Some degree of curling is normal for healthy Bird of Paradise foliage. Young leaves emerge from the centre of the plant tightly curled up and unfold as they mature. Even adult leaves tend to have a slight wave to them.
Curling Bird of Paradise leaves become a problem when there are other symptoms of stress or disease or when the curling is excessive.
Common Causes and How to Fix
It’s important to remember that curling leaves are only a side effect of something else going on. In order to treat your Bird of Paradise and prevent any future damage, you need to narrow down the root cause first.
I’ve loosely listed the potential causes below in order from most to least likely. As you work to diagnose your Bird of Paradise’s curling leaves, I recommend ruling out the explanations at the top of the list first.
1. Water Stress
A surprising number of ailing plants can be cured with a proper watering regimen. In the case of Bird of Paradise, dry soil is one of the worst culprits of curling leaves.
Other symptoms you might notice include browning along the tips or margins of the foliage. Your plant’s leaves may also feel dry and brittle when touched.
Water your Bird of Paradise when the soil is 50% dry. I recommend using a soaking technique to water, allowing plenty of clean water to flow from the container’s drainage holes in the process.
2. Low Humidity
Extremely dry air can suck moisture from plant leaves almost as quickly as underwatering can. If your Bird of Paradise appears dehydrated but the soil is kept well-watered, low humidity may be the problem. (It’s also very common for both issues to be at play at once.)
Most growers agree that Bird of Paradise will tolerate average household humidity levels but this tropical plant needs humidity of 50 to 70% to truly thrive. It’s worth investing in a quality humidifier if you want to keep your Bird of Paradise happy and healthy, especially during the drier seasons.
3. Harsh Sun Exposure
Plants need access to the sun to photosynthesize and go on living. When plants are exposed to more sunlight than they can handle, though, it’s common for their leaves to dry up, curl, and turn brown.
Bird of Paradise plants generally prefers full sunlight. In particularly warm climates, it’s best to place them somewhere that receives partial shade during the hottest part of the day. Overexposure in the early afternoon often results in burnt, curled leaves.
In my experience, harsh sunlight can exacerbate issues like underwatering or low humidity and vice-versa. Bird of Paradise grown in outdoor containers are generally the most susceptible to this dangerous combo.
4. Temperature Stress
Leaf curling is a natural response to extreme temperatures. This simple mechanism offers some protection for more delicate leaves when growing conditions are too hot or too cold. If these conditions last for a long time, though, the damage will become permanent.
Bird of Paradise plants is hardy in USDA zones 10 to 12. According to the University of Florida, leaves and flower buds will be damaged by frost and the entire plant can easily be killed off by temperatures below 24°F.
If necessary, insulate outdoor plants during cold weather. Container-grown plants can be moved indoors until temperatures warm back up.
While moderate heat is unlikely to cause any damage, intense heat sources (e.g., radiators, heat vents, fire pits etc.) can easily scorch nearby leaves. Hot air also tends to be very dry, which can damage the foliage.
For general health, keep Bird of Paradise away from fluctuating or extreme temperatures. If you live outside of this plant’s hardiness zone, be sure to move containers indoors well before cool weather is forecast.
When a potted plant becomes rootbound, it means that the root system is constricted within its container. Bird of Paradise doesn’t mind being a little rootbound — it can actually encourage the plants to bloom.
With that said, an extremely rootbound Bird of Paradise may have a hard time taking in adequate water and nutrients. You might also notice that the potting soil either retains too much water or drains extremely quickly. All of these issues can cause curling leaves.
The obvious solution is to repot your Bird of Paradise into a large container. On average, this should be done every 2 years or whenever the plant outgrows its existing pot.
I recommend repotting in early spring before the plant enters its active growth season. But if your Bird of Paradise is seriously struggling, it’s likely better to get the job done sooner rather than later.
6. Pests or Disease
A Bird of Paradise plant can fall victim to a number of pest species and diseases. However, only a few of them are likely to cause leaf curling.
While you might be able to trace your plant’s ailing foliage to a pest, fungus, or bacteria, don’t underestimate the importance of proper maintenance. It’s very common for these invaders to take hold of plants that are already stressed from a so-so-growing environment or inconsistent care.
Most pests are attracted to Bird of Paradise because the foliage provides a valuable food source. Sap-sucking pests like mealy bugs, scale, and spider mites pierce the leaf tissue and draw out juices with their tiny mouthpieces.
Over time, the damage can dehydrate the leaf, causing it to curl up. But curled leaves are rarely the first symptom of an infestation.
Watch for yellow or brown spots appearing on your Bird of Paradise leaves where pests have been feeding. I also recommend routinely checking for physical signs like webs, eggs, or the pests themselves.
You can control many infestations by spraying the plant with a hose. Neem oil works as both a preventative measure and a treatment for existing pests.
Severe infestations might call for pesticidal chemicals. However, this should be a last resort and requires thorough research and/or oversight by a professional.
Root rot is an aptly named disease that primarily causes the deterioration of root tissue. Once the disease is far enough along, the affected plant can no longer absorb water, oxygen, or nutrients via its root system.
While the root system is being destroyed beneath the soil’s surface, more visible symptoms like discolouration, curling leaves, and stunted growth often appear above ground.
Most cases of root rot are the result of Amarillia or Pythium fungal infections. Fungal spores can be spread through contaminated soil and seeds, on tools, or seemingly just by bad luck.
Regardless of where the root rot-causing pathogens came from, they need damp soil to multiply and take hold of a healthy root system. The vast majority of root rot I see stems from either overwatering or poor-draining soil.
Root rot is a tricky thing to treat — this is true even when the disease is caught very early on by an experienced gardener. Preventing the disease in the first place with good cultural practices is much more effective.
Bacterial wilt, caused by the bacterium Ralstonia solanacearum, is relatively rare in Bird of Paradise. But I still want to mention it here because curled, desiccated leaves are one of the earliest symptoms.
Again, prevention is the best strategy against this disease. It’s more common in landscape beds than indoor or outdoor containers.
Bacterial wilt is soil-borne and can survive for around 2 years without a plant host. Avoid using potentially contaminated soil or tools. Do not plant Bird of Paradise in areas that have recently been infected with the disease.
7. Poor Nutrition
Bird of Paradise is a heavy feeder that needs to be fertilized as often as every 2 weeks during the growing season. I recommend using a balanced formula with equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium unless a soil test indicates otherwise.
Both under and over-fertilizing can cause leaf curling. However, you’ll likely see symptoms like yellowing, browning, and stunted growth long before any significant curling occurs.
8. Physical Trauma
The edges of Bird of Paradise leaves are fairly thin and delicate. Repeated contact with the foliage can bruise the leaf tissue, causing the edges to discolour, fray, or curl inward.
Once physical damage has been done, there’s not much you can do to reverse it. But you can identify the source of the damage — e.g., strong wind, heavy rain, people or animals brushing past, etc. — and take steps to protect your plants going forward.
9. Transplant Shock
Transplant shock occurs when a plant feels ‘under the weather’ after being moved from one planting location to another. Common symptoms include wilting or curling foliage, stunted growth, and premature leaf drop. In extreme cases, transplant shock can be fatal.
Though some degree of transplant shock is often unavoidable, you should do everything you can to make this process as smooth as possible. Some things that can help make transplanting less stressful include:
- Replanting as quickly as possible to prevent the roots from drying out
- Filling the new bed or container with a similar soil mixture
- Avoiding any physical damage to the root system
- Transplanting in mild weather to reduce environmental stress
- Giving the plant time to adjust to new light conditions before transplanting
If you follow these tips, most Bird of Paradise plants experiencing transplant shock will recover within a few days of transplanting.
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FAQs Bird of Paradise Leaves Curling
Will Bird of Paradise Leaves Uncurl?
Young Bird of Paradise leaves emerge furled up but will gradually uncurl as they mature. These plants are slow-growing, so it can sometimes take a month or more for new leaves to fully open up. If the leaves refuse to unfurl, it may mean something’s wrong with the plant’s environment.
Why Are My Bird of Paradise Leaves Splitting?
It’s normal for mature Bird of Paradise leaves to split along the margins. The likely explanation for this is that it helps wind pass through the leaves. If you want to reduce the degree of leaf splitting, simply protect your plant from wind and other physical damage.
Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.