Ornithogalum – the popular chincherinchees

Chincherinchee flowers have a long vase life and consequently are cultivated for distribution all over the world, writes Cameron McMaster.
Issue date : 12 September 2008

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Chincherinchee is the common name for the species Ornithogalum thyrsoides which has been a popular garden plant and an important export cut flower for the past 100 years or more. T he genus Ornithogalum is classified under the plant family Hyacinthaceae and consists of about 120 species distributed in Africa and Eurasia. The majority occur in Southern Africa, with 43 species in the Floral Region. Ornithogalum are perennial bulbous plants that are deciduous or, rarely, evergreen and they have spikes of mostly white or yellow-to-orange star-like or cup-shaped flowers borne on erect stems.

Most species are toxic to animals and if ingested result in a condition known as krimpsiekte. he best known chincherinchee, Ornithogalum thyrsoides, is widespread in the Western Cape, occurring in a variety of habitats from coastal sandy flats to clay soils in lowland areas and in damp seeps. It flowers from October to December and has attractive white flowers, sometimes with dark centres that are particularly long-lasting. They can remain fresh in a vase for weeks, even a month or more. Because of this trait they’ve been commercially cultivated, initially around Darling but later elsewhere.

The flowers used to be shipped by sea to Europe and the US for use as winter cut flowers at Christmas. Flowers destined for shipping were picked in bud and the cut stem dipped in wax before packing. O n arrival at destinations several weeks later, the waxed tip was cut off and the stems placed in water to stimulate the flowers to open. Nowadays, cut flowers are distributed by air, but the long vase life is still an important feature. his species and its hybrids are currently cultivated throughout the world. Ornithogalum umbellatum and Ornithogalum arabicum are very similar Mediterranean species, commonly known as the star of Bethlehem, and also popular garden plants cultivated for use as cut flowers.

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What’s in a name?
The derivation of both common and scientific names of wild flowers is a fascinating subject covered in an interesting booklet by Prof WPU Jackson, titled Origins and Meanings of Plant Names of South African Plant Genera and published by the University of Cape Town Botany Department and available at Botanical Society book shops. I t says the name Ornithogalum is from the Greek ornithos, meaning bird, and gala which means milk. This refers to the milk-like secretions produced in pigeons’ crops for feeding their young. Bird’s milk was colloquial in Ancient Greek for something beautiful.

The popular name chincherinchee, is said to imitate the sound of stems rubbing against each other in the strong southeasterly winds where they grow. Like most South African wildflowers there are many lesser known and obscure species of Ornithogalum occurring throughout the country. Recent revisions in the family Hyacinthaceae have absorbed related genera such as Albuca, Dipcadi and Galtonia into Ornithogalum. However, and many of my amateur associates prefer to stick with the old classification and still regard these as separate genera. Consequently the original circumscription of the genus is adhered to in this discussion.

From unusual to abundant
The majority of the large flowered species occur in the winter rainfall region. However, there are some notable exceptions. Ornithogalum saundersiae, the giant white chincherinchee, flowers in mid-summer and has large, many-flowered heads on stems up to 1,5m tall. It occurs in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland and Mpumalanga. Ornithogalum synanthifolium, an attractive Eastern Cape species, occurs near forest margins and in some years covers the countryside around Keiskamma Hoek in spring.

 It’s almost evergreen and rivals Ornithogalum thyrsoides as both a garden and landscaping plant, and as a cut flower. There are a number of attractive yellow and orange chincherinchees, the best known being Ornithogalum dubium. It varies from 20cm tall to very short, diminutive forms. It occurs more often in the clay soils of the Renosterveld in the west Cape and extends as far east as Humansdorp and Port Elizabeth. A much smaller species with similar attractive orange flowers is Ornithogalum multifolium. It has many grass-like leaves. Ornithogalum maculatum is a striking deep orange species with black markings on the tips of the outer petals. It occurs in the drier areas of Namaqualand, the Boland and the western Karoo. Ornithogalum pruinosum from the drier Northern Cape, has greyer leaves and long-lasting, white flowers.

 It is a good rockery subject. Another desert species is Ornithogalum xanthochlorum occurring near Ceres and Tanqua Karoo. Despite an extremely arid habitat, it’s one of the largest species in the Western Cape. A novelty species is Ornithogalum longibracteatum, commonly known the pregnant onion. It has many offsets that develop alongside the mature bulbs, eventually resulting in a mass of exposed bulbs crowded together in rock fissures and cracks. They have tall spikes of many small, greenish flowers and are popular pot plants, often filling a pot with attractive green bulbs that spill out and over the sides.

Be warned, however, they spread very easily from seed and can become a weedy nuisance in gardens. All Ornithogalum grow readily from seed. They mature rapidly to flowering size and are relatively pest and disease free. Advice on cultivation can be obtained from the booklet Grow Bulbs by Graham Duncan, part of the Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. The Western Cape species are fully covered in The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs by Manning, Goldblatt and Snijman. Contact Cameron McMaster at [email protected]. |fw