Talk tulips, and everybody gets the picture. Write poetry about daffodils, and you could be immortalized in the annals of literature, but say “Onithogalum”, and your friends probably won’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Use this to your advantage by adding an element of surprise to your flower garden. Soon, your friends will be trying hard to say that long name just so that they can get the plants and emulate your success. But what are these plants with the five-syllable name? Why should you grow Ornithogalum bulbs, and why will you be so thrilled with the result? We explore an underused garden plant that deserves more attention from gardeners.
Does “Star of Bethlehem” ring a bell?
No, we’re not talking about Christmas plays, carols, or tree decorations. The Star of Bethlehem is the common name for an uncommon plant: the Ornithogalum. This genus occurs in Southern Europe, Western Asia, and Southern Africa.
It’s beautiful flower spikes are adorned with distinctive star-shaped flowers, and although it doesn’t flower at Christmas, the flower shape earned it its name.
An improved version of an old favourite
There are several species within the genus Ornithogalum, but there’s one species in particular that really stands out. That’s Ornithogalum saundersiae. Also known as the Giant Ornithogalum, this plant of many names is a definite improvement on the run-of-the-mill.
It’s one of the South African Ornithogalums, and they’ve got a different common name. This one has the unlikely handle of Chinkerinchee, and if you think that’s no easier than remembering the Latin name, you won’t be alone. In case you want to try, knowing the origin of the common name might help. In South Africa where these flowers grow in dense stands, the wind often causes the flower stems to rub together making a distinctive sound.
Call it what you want, you’ll soon be applying words like “beautiful” to it, so avoid the tongue twisters if you prefer, and just get planting.
What’s it good for?
Some plants are best in pots; others thrive best when planted in beds; some are great for cutting and keeping in the vase. Ornithogalum saundersiae stands out for its success in all three areas.
The cut flower performance is almost unbelievable, and you’ll have to try it for yourself to see. Simply cut the buds as the first florets begin to open. Your flowers will last in the vase for weeks and weeks. Weird fact: if you add a little coloured ink or food colouring to the water, the flowers will also start to change colour, developing a tinge of blue or pink depending on the colour you chose.
In the garden, plant them at least three to five per pot for a showy display, or group them to create cool white pools of 1.5m high blooms in summer.
Don’t Ornithogalums need a lot of care?
One of the coolest things about Ornithogalums in general, and O.saundersiae in particular, is their low maintenance requirement. Although they come from Southern Africa, they naturally grow in the high mountains and their foothills. Believe it or not, they actually get snow in winter.
That means you can leave your dormant bulbs right there in the soil if you don’t feel like lifting them. Provided your soil is well-drained, they won’t die or rot. When springtime comes around, the leaves appear, and by midsummer, they’re in bloom.
Their mountainous habitat means they can take quite poor soils, so feeding shouldn’t be necessary. You can plant them and all but forget about them, and you’ll still get glorious flowers every year. You can also tell that they’ll want good drainage. Most bulbs do, but ones from mountainous habitats are almost sure to prefer soil that doesn’t stay soggy all the time.
As you may have guessed, these plants prefer a sunny spot, but they’ll tolerate a little shade too. Just don’t plant them in very deep shade or the flower stems will become floppy.
Crossing the equator for the best Ornithogalum growers
South Africans are notorious for not exploiting the potential of their very best plants. Show them a lily of the Nile, and they’ll shrug and say they’re common as muck. Give them geraniums, and they’ll smile politely while wondering what the fuss is about. Apart from a flurry of breeding at the South African Agricultural Research Centre, South Africans just haven’t done much with their Ornithogalums.
As a result, the best Ornithogalums on the market don’t come from their original home. Besides, crossing the equator can make plants very confused about the seasons! At Farmer Gracy, we’ve sourced our bulbs from the best growers in the Netherlands and Spain. That ensures that you get top-quality, disease-free plants that are primed for success.
Saundersiae or arabicum?
Ornithogalum arabicum is cute. There’s nothing not to like about those pretty flowers, but in our opinion, Saundersiae far outshines its cousin. For a start, the flower stems are longer and stronger. Secondly, each flower is much bigger, and as for the garden performance, it can’t be faulted.
As time goes on, you’ll see your Ornithogalums forming clumps with multiple crowns, and you’ll get more and better flowers every single year. Try them this spring; we’re ready to bet you’ll be thrilled with the results.