Ornithogalum (2014)

PhotoBy Eric Driskill (January 2014)

The genus Ornithogalum belongs to the family Hyacinthaceae. The name Ornithogalum is from the Greek, “ornis” – bird, and “gala” – milk (due to the white flowers). This is a large genus centered in South Africa and throughout the Mediterranean.

Due to the allure of the flowers, the plants can now be found in Europe, Africa, America and west Asia. There are also species native to the Caucasus, the area between the Black and the Caspian Seas.

The Mediterranean Sea and many locations hosting ornithogalums fall between 30 and 45 degrees north latitude. Much of America fits within the same 30 to 45 degrees north latitude. South Africa happens to be located within 25 to 35 degrees south latitude. You can find several of the more choice 100 to 150 species of Ornithogalum grown in pots and gardens throughout America.

Based on their star-shaped flowers, the common name for these plants is the Star of Bethlehem, after the famous star in the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus. They are bulbs with linear basal leaves and a slender stalk. Their flowers are typically white and striped with green, with a few plants highlighted by somewhat more showy yellow or orange flowers.

Most succulent collectors would surely agree that not every bulb should find a spot on succulent benches or show tables. We do, however, seem to adopt several bulbs as our very own with no qualms at all.

One such bulb is Ornithogalum caudatum, the sea onion. This bulb with many bulblets forms clumps over time. Whether we embrace it due to the size of the bulb or the fact that it is found in South Africa, Cape Province, who knows?

Another very odd species of Ornithogalum we welcome is O. unifoliatum, from “uni” – one, and “foliatum” – leaf. This plant was a recent offering of the Huntington Botanical Gardens International Succulent Introductions.

The species works beneath the soil for much of the year to muster an impressive display of one leaf. Don’t let the scarcity of foliage deter you; the leaves can reach a massive 3 inches across. If nothing else, it does make a good story when that single leaf appears.

Whether you choose to add a few species to your yard, don’t fail to consider one of the species we make room for right there among our other succulent plants.