Wednesday, December 8, 2010


A fairly useful item for the florist are the various members of the Ornithogalum family. For years the variety that we have come to accept as "Star-of-Bethlehem" is what is actually classified as O. Thyrsoiides, and in fact this unwieldy name is becoming more prevalent in everyday usage. This is due to the fact that there are several other varieties that are being grown commercially and which are now available as a cut flower, and some of the terms were becoming ridiculous , especially "Arabic Star-of-Bethlehem". 
On top of that the flower that is called "Star-of-Bethlehem" by the rest of the horticulture world (as distinct from the cut-flower industry), is a species known as O. umbellatum, a rather lank flower with small, thin petalled flowers and which is not particularly attractive. Furthermore, before the flower received a rather modern makeover of it's nomenclature, it was referred to as Dove's Dung:                                     

"And there was a great famine in Samaria: and behold, they besieged it, until an ass's head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the  fourth part of a cab of dove's dung for five pieces of silver."
2 KINGS 6:25

The name apparently arose from the spectacle of the white flowers glistening upon the open fields of Palestine which apparently and, rather unpoetical, was said to resemble bird droppings. A lot of them! Certainly the Greek word Ornithogalum is more genteel, and is translated as "Bird's Milk". In biblical times the bulbs of these flowers were used as a foodstuff, either roasted or dried and conserved. They were frequently used by Muslims on their pilgrimages to Mecca.
The varieties most common today are the pure white O. Thyrsoiides with the flowers clustered in a terminal raceme or spike; the tall O. Arabicum with creamy flowers and almost black ovaries clustered in a corymb; O. Saundersiae which is very similar to the Arabicum; and the brightly colored O. dubium which until recently was available in Orange and Yellow. A new cultivar O. dubium "White" has been introduced to the commercial cut flower markets, which is a welcome addition to the family. The flowers are distinctly larger than other Ornithogalums with some dark markings at the base of the petals, creating an 'eye' when the flowers open. In the middle image the new cultivar is juxtaposed with the O. Thyrsoiides to give a sense of the relative size of the petals and the flowers. The flowers themselves are loaded on terminal racemes, and when fully open create a generous display. In the vase test the comported themselves very well and proved to be long-lasting and very hardy.

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