Chincherinchees shine in borders, containers, and flower arrangements

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Ornithogalum thyrsoides Picture courtesy sophie see her flickr linkOrnithogalum thyrsoides Picture courtesy sophie see her flickr linkChincherinchee is not only renowned as an excellent cut flower, but is also grown worldwide as a reliable garden plant or pot plant, and in South Africa it is a ‘must-have’ for wildlife gardens.  Read more about growing these bulbs in the garden below.

Our very own Ornithogalum thyrsoides is one of the best known “chinks”, as gardeners commonly refer to them, and has gained worldwide acclaim for its ethereal yet durable blooms. It has also been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

During the winter months this beautiful plant is most unassuming and produces 5 to 7 fleshy, lace-shaped leaves about 15 to 30cm long, but during flowering season it really shines when the clusters of flowers appear on stems about 50 to 60cm tall. Each flower head consists of more than a dozen petite, exceptionally beautiful, ivory to faintly buttery coloured, star-shaped blooms, each with a prominent brown or dusky green central eye that fades with age.

Flowering times can vary from region to region, generally occurring anytime from early October to late December. The inflorescence is phototropic, meaning that the flowers and stems bend towards the light and change their direction if moved from one place to another.

Wildlife enthusiasts will be happy to know that the flowers will attract carpenter bees, beetles, as well as butterflies and many other small insects, which in turn, will entice insectivorous birds to the garden.

The seed capsule is spindle-shaped and thin-walled, splitting longitudinally to expose the small, black and shiny, variously shaped seeds. The large rounded bulbs store up nutrients during the growing season before going dormant for the remainder of the summer months.

One of the most popular selections of this species for cut flower production is Ornithogalum thyrsoides 'Mount Fuji'. This garden cultivar is sought after by florists all over the world and is exported all year round from South Africa and the Netherlands. ‘Mt Fuji’, grows about 40 to 50cm tall, and has a long inflorescence and thicker flower stems than other forms.

Ornithogalum saundersiae Picture courtesy sophie see her flickr linkOrnithogalum saundersiae Picture courtesy sophie see her flickr linkThere are also a number of evergreen, summer-growing species like Ornithogalum Saundersiae (Giant Chincherinchee)
Click here to read more about the giant chincherinchee at PlantZAfrica.com

Ornithogalum belongs to the Hyacinthaceae genus of plants, which ranks among the 20 largest families in the Cape Flora. The genus has about 120 species which are distributed in Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, and Western Asia. However the vast majority, 114 of the 120 species, occur only in southern Africa, with 38 of these occurring in the winter rainfall regions of the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape. Its range extends from Namaqualand, to Darling, where it is very common, to the Cape Peninsula. It is also abundant around Caledon and the Agulhas Plain.

Plants of Ornithogalum thyrsoides survive the hot dry summers of the winter rainfall regions through dormancy, and flowering in the genus appears to be stimulated by fires. In the wild it is found growing prolifically in large colonies on sandy flats, and because the species prefers moist and fertile soil, it also thrives in disturbed ground in ditches and along roadsides, as well as on the lower slopes of hillsides and mountains, and in vleis and seasonally wet, low-lying areas.  As a garden plant, it has also adapted to a wide variety of habitats, including many summer rainfall regions of South Africa. It has become naturalized in Western Australia where it grows in disturbed sites.

Click here to see a beautiful photos of Ornithogalum thyrsoides at PlantsZAfrica.com

This delightful little plant is commonly called: Chincherinchee, Wonder-Flower, Star-Of-Bethlehem, and in Afrikaans, Tjienkerientjee, Tjienk, Wit-Tjienk, and Viooltjie. The Afrikaans name “tjienkerientjee” was given by Thunberg in 1772 as “tinkerintees”, in reference to the sound the firm flower stems make when they are rubbed together by the strong winds of the Cape. Carl Peter Thunberg (11 November 1743 – 8 August 1828) was a Swedish naturalist and an ardent follower of Carl Linnaeus. After studying under Linnaeus at Uppsala University, Sweden, he spent years travelling in southern Africa and Asia, collecting and describing many plants and animals, and observing local cultures. He has been called "the father of South African botany", "pioneer of Occidental Medicine in Japan", and the "Japanese Linnaeus".

The common name “star-of-Bethlehem” was used for the European species, Ornithogalum umbellatum, and because the flowers look similar, the same name was adopted there for Ornithogalum thyrsoides. Chincherinchee is the direct English translation of the Afrikaans name tjienkerientjee, and in the eighteenth century both names were in common use. Ornithogalum thyrsoides was introduced into gardens in Holland before 1700 and it is definitely known to have been in cultivation in Europe from about 1750.

Uses:

Flowering time can be manipulated in this species by storing the bulbs at different temperatures while dormant, resulting in cut flowers being available for a large part of the year.  Several species are noted for their very long vase-life of up to six weeks, and Ornithogalum thyrsoides has been exported as a cut flower from South Africa to the United Kingdom and Europe for more than a century. 

In the Garden:

The glistening white, star-shaped flowers of chincherinchees shine in borders, containers, and flower arrangements.

Chincherinchee is not only renowned as an excellent cut flower, but is also grown worldwide as a reliable garden plant or pot plant, and in South Africa it is a ‘must-have’ for wildlife gardens.  In temperate gardens, Ornithogalum thyrsoides is seen to great advantage when grown in rock garden pockets, inter-planted with the beautiful mauve, late spring-flowering annual, Senecio elegans (Wild Cineraria).
Click here to read more about the Wild Cineraria at PlantZAfrica.com

Spoil yourself and purchase a few bulbs or plants for your garden, chincherinchees are one of those special garden plants which help extend the flowering season because they start blooming later in spring and continue into early summer. They are also very undemanding and when they have finished flowering, they will quietly slip into dormancy, leaving room for the mid-summer bloomers to steal the spotlight.

Cultivation:

In South Africa the winter-growing Ornithogalum bulbs are planted in autumn (April to May), but plants growing in nursery bags or pots can be planted out later. They do best in full sun, but will tolerate partial, dappled shade. The flowers only open fully on hot, still days, but remain attractive even when closed in cold or rainy weather.

The plants are semi-hardy tolerating temperatures down to 2°C, and are only able to withstand temperatures down to freezing for short spells in winter, so if you are in a very cold region, plant them into pots to place on a sunny, protected patio or entrance.

Chincherinchees prefer a neutral to slightly acidic soil which is porous and well-drained, but will adapt to most garden soils, including: sandy, gritty loamy, peaty or somewhat clayish soils, but the latter must have good drainage. In the garden they will benefit from the addition of some compost or acid compost to the planting holes, and a dressing of organic fertiliser, but remember chincherinchees  resent over-feeding, and if planted in good soil they will need no further feeding in their first season of growth. Thereafter, mulch each autumn with compost or leaf-mould, and feed with a good general purpose organic fertiliser.

Plant the bulbs shallowly (up to 10mm deep) and water well. Thereafter, if there is no rainfall, water thoroughly, no more than once a week. In the winter rainfall regions, no further watering may be required, unless there is a drought.

When the plants stop flowering in summer, let the foliage die down naturally, and once the plant is totally dormant, mark the spot where they are growing, and keep the bulbs as dry as possible. For this reason, in the summer rainfall regions the plants require very well-drained soil, or are often planted on a slope to enhance drainage.

Propagation:

The preferred and most convenient means of propagation is to remove small offsets ‘bulblets’ during the plants dormant phase. Theses should be carefully split from the parent bulb using a sharp, clean object like a small knife. Plant these bulblets immediately into a fertile, well-drained, growing medium. Place the offsets approximately 6 to 8 cm deep in the soil and about 15 cm apart. Water well but do not overwater until the plants are established enough to be planted out into their permanent positions in the garden.

Plants are also easily raised from seed sown in autumn, but the plant will take much longer to start producing flowers compared to those raised by the removal of offsets. Seeds should be sown into a similar growing medium and should be cared for in the same manner as offsets, and placed in a temperate, brightly-lit area.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Chincherinchees grown in gardens are generally problem-free, and thankfully the bulbs are not often taken by moles and porcupines.

Commercially grown Ornithogalum and Lachenalia species in South Africa are susceptible to Ornithogalum Mosaic Virus. The virus also occurs in the Netherlands and the USA.

Sadly there are no cures for viral diseases such as mosaic once a plant is infected, not even fungicides will treat it. Symptoms of infection on Ornithogalum ssp. and hybrids show mottling of the leaves and stems, and deformed flowers. 

Today the elimination of ornithogalum mosaic virus from chincherinchee (​Ornithogalum thyrsoides) is done by propagating plants by meristem tip culture. Prevent this virus from entering your garden by purchasing from a reputable garden centre which will only stock disease-free bulbs and seeds.

In the garden, keep the plants free of aphids, mealy bugs, thrips, leaf hoppers, nematodes, and snails and slugs as these transmit viruses

Infected plants should be discarded, along with any containers and soil that has been in contact with the diseased plant.

Warning:

Ornithogalum thyrsoides and O. conicum both with a similar distribution in the Cape, are poisonous and contain deadly alkaloids and cardenolides that sometimes result in the death of  horses and cattle if ingested. For this reason discourage house pets from chewing on plants, and always supervise young children in the garden.

Poison symptoms include: Nausea, salivation, vomiting, diarrhoea, and shortness of breath, pain, burning, and swelling of lips, tongue, and throat. Skin irritation can occur following prolonged contact.