A Bird in the Bush?
More than a year ago, I was browsing a friend's website when I came across some pages describing the plant I'm going to share with you here. This person did not, and does not, have this plant, but he did become very interested in finding out if the Parrot Flower was a real plant or was a fictional creation born of PhotoShop magic. What he discovered is that the plant is indeed real, and that, surprisingly, it had been described in 1901 by botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker! Once again, an extremely exotic plant turns out to be native to Thailand and nearby environs. It is known in Thailand as Dork Nok Khaew.
What It Is
Impatiens psittacina belongs in the family Balsaminaceae, which is the same family in which the garden Impatiens and garden Balsam are found. A familiarity with the floral structure of the plants in this family will enable you to see the anatomical similarity. This will also allow you to see that the "parrot flower" is, in a manner of speaking, a perceptual illusion. You see, the parrot "head" is actually the bottom, or back, of the flower, while the "feathered parrot tail" is really the front or opening of the flower where the pollinator makes entrance. Once you see this, your perception will flip-flop between seeing the "parrot' and seeing the flower! Because of this, some forms may look much more "parrot-like" than other forms. Also, you must view the flower from the side to really get the parrot image; a frontal view will present a look just like an open flower, not a parrot.
This perceptual observation is one reason why some confusion has resulted in trying to correlate Hooker's botanical description of the plant with the actual field observations being made in the 21st century. A look at the botanical illustration from the 1901 article (see image at left) shows the blooms depicted with the floral openings facing generally towards the observer, or with the front and back of the flower in the same horizontal plane. This makes the parrot-like shape much less apparent, or even missing entirely.
The Real Thing
Impatiens psittacina is said to grow 5 to 6 feet tall as a gangly weed-like plant and not anything like the short shrubby Balsams which gardeners are familiar with. However, I remember seeing a species of Impatiens this tall growing wild in a Maryland woodland. The plant could have been Impatiens capensis, but at the time I was much younger and did not take the time to obtain a valid identification. The blooms were more inconspicuous and not at all parrot-like, but the growth habit seemed similar. A very important difference, though, is that the Parrot Flower requires humid rainforest conditions, which is one reason why so few people have grown the plant successfully in the United States. The other, perhaps more important, reason, is that this plant is just not available on the market here. Thai authorities have strict rules prohibiting the harvest and sale of the plant, and smuggling one out of Thailand might land you in a Thai prison for a lengthy stay. That's not likely to be the sort of Thai vacation you have in mind if you go there in search of the Parrot Flower!
The friend I mentioned earlier has devoted a good deal of effort to sleuthing out the complete and detailed story of this plant, starting with just the receipt of a few photos of the plant in an email and no other information. He's done an admirable job of putting the pieces of the puzzle together. The results of his hard work can be seen at Rare Thailand Parrot Flower.
Images courtesy: Steve Lucas and Public Domain