To the untrained eye, this perfect little parcel of petals may look like an origami hummingbird. It is, in fact, a native Australian flower that blooms to emulate the tiny bird perfectly, and it’s taking the internet by storm.
The plant that produces this extraordinary flower is known as the green or regal birdflower, scientific name Crotalaria cunninghamii. According to Australia’s Botanic Gardens & Parks Authority, the plant is an upright shrub with a brief lifespan, prolific in the northern half of Western Australia all the way from the coast into the desert.
The regal birdflower is related to peas and beans. The first part of the plant’s scientific name, Crotalaria, derives from the Greek word crotalon, meaning “rattle” or “castanet,” and refers to the way in which the seeds rattle in the plant’s club-shaped pods when shaken, notes the website.
The Australian-native plant can grow up to 4 meters in height. In bloom, its oval-shaped leaves give way to a mass of large bright-green flowers with purple-brown veins at the end of each branch.
Upon close inspection, it is these green flowers that so closely resemble the pert wings of a hummingbird in flight. Each bird-looking flower is attached by its “beak”—which in reality is the flower’s calyx—to the stem of a branch.
The regal birdflower underwent a stateside surge in desirability after a photo of the plant’s adorable bird-like flowers went viral in summer of 2019.
When a photo appeared on Reddit, shared by user OctopusPrime, a post-doc scientist studying flower evolution joined the conversation to help unearth the origin of the plant’s unique appearance. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the thread eventually discounted the possibility that the plant benefits by masquerading as a hummingbird to human observers.
“The fact that the flower looks like a bird to humans cannot have evolved adaptively, because as a ‘signal receiver,’ there is nothing humans could have done to increase the fitness of individuals that evolved this signal (to look like a bird),” the scientist, going by the online moniker SolitaryBee, commented.
“One could also argue that the resemblance to a bird is adaptive because it signals to another kind of receiver (e.g. herbivore, seed disperser, pollinator). This I would argue is exceptionally unlikely,” the scientist continued, “because it is exceptionally unlikely that this flower does indeed appear like a bird to any other observer.”
The hummingbird that the flower so perfectly emulates is not even native to Western Australia. The majority consensus in the scientific community is that the regal birdflower’s appearance is simply a phenomenon known as pareidolia, a curious tendency among humans to perceive meaningful images within random visual patterns.
The regal birdflower’s uncanny simulacrum, however, does belie a legitimate function of the flower as a medicinal aid. According to the Useful Tropical Plants Database, the regal birdflower has long been harvested from the wild for use in medicines and as a potent source of fiber.
The plant is classified as of “least concern” on the IUCN Red List and there are no major known threats to the species; however, the plant’s native habitat is under encroaching threat from systemic habitat degradation.
As such, a plethora of plant lovers are keen to assist the regal birdflower in a stateside emigration.
Better Homes & Gardens advises that the birdflower will happily grow in the United States in USDA Hardiness Zones 10 and 11, including hot tropical regions such as Southern California, Southern Florida, and Hawaii.