Close-up View of Three Ornithogalum Flowers
"Snake Flower" & "Arab's Eyes"
thyrsoides , Ornithogalum dubium
& Ornithogalum arabicum)
by Brian Johnston (Canada)
All three of the plants discussed
in this article are cut-flowers purchased at a tiny “boutique” flower
shop located in a large shopping mall in Toronto. Florists
sometimes refer to the three, tongue in cheek, as “florist’s
nightmares”, since they often last for months when the cut stems are
placed in water. Although I prefer to photograph native
wildflowers, Canadian winters prevent the activity from the middle of
October until the beginning of May. Out of desperation, I am
therefore forced to photograph the wildflowers of warmer climates, in
this case, South Africa and Western Australia.
The genus Ornithogalum
previously belonged to the family Liliaceae.
It is now considered to be a member of the family Hyacinthaceae.
The three plants illustrated in the article are bulbous perennials, and
are considered to be poisonous, as they contain Cholestane glycosides
and calcium oxalate.
– Ornithogalum thyrsoides
The Greeks referred to something
incredible as being “bird’s milk”, ornithos
– bird and gala – milk.
This seems to be the accepted derivation of the genus name Ornithogalum,
and also one of the common names, “Wonder Flower”. The extremely
strange common name “Chincherinchee” comes from the fact that South
Africans refer to the flowers as "tjenkenrientjee". In addition
to the previously mentioned common names, this plant is sometimes
called the “Star of Bethlehem”. (Unfortunately, many other
unrelated plants are also called “Star of Bethlehem”, illustrating the
danger of using common names alone.)
The first image in the article
shows the typical pyramid-shaped cluster (raceme) of white flowers
which grows on top of a leafless stem up to one metre in length.
(A raceme is an arrangement of
stalked flowers.) The white
blooms with pale green colouration at the centres, are composed of six
petals. As the flowers age, the green colouration tends to become
lighter or disappears entirely.
The images below shows the very
tight packing of the leaflets in the raceme, and the many encircling
The dark green raceme contrasts
strikingly with the pale white flowers of the plant. In my
specimen, the raceme was about ten centimetres in length.
Eventually, all of the tightly
packed, green spear-shaped leaflets are pushed out by short-stalked
buds. The white flowers, which bloom from bottom to top, are
large enough to completely obscure these green leaflets in the later
stages of the blooming plant. The raceme eventually displays up
to about thirty flowers.
The short flower stalk, and faintly
striped green bracts (modified leaves), can be seen below.
As a bud opens, the reproductive
structures of the flower are revealed. Each flower has six stamens consisting of an anther, (the male pollen producing
organ), and a supporting filament.
A single pistil, consisting of
a stigma, (the female pollen
accepting organ), and its supporting style,
is positioned at the centre of the ring of stamens.
Three images with increasing
magnification, of the back of a stamen, are shown below. Notice
in the third photograph, the two translucent “wings” that are present
at the base of the filament.
The front of each anther is
completely coated with light brown pollen grains.
By removing one of the anthers, it
is possible to obtain an unobstructed view of the pale white stigma
(top), the yellowish green style (middle), and darker green ovary in which the seeds develop
The reverse side of an anther, with
the point of attachment to the filament, can be seen below.
Under the microscope, this point of
attachment seems remarkably fragile. Notice the pollen grains
clinging to the anther’s surface in the image to the right.
When more highly magnified, (and
using phase contrast illumination), the finely dimpled surface of the
peanut-shaped pollen grain can be observed.
Many of the pollen grains in my
specimen seemed to have “sprays” of needle-like crystals associated
with them. (I suspect that the crystals are calcium oxalate.)
The stigma has three-fold symmetry,
with three longitudinal protrusions covered with thick, translucent
hairs. Pollen grains can be seen adhering to these hairs.
At a higher magnification, it is
evident that each hair has a globular end.
A photomicrograph of a thin slice
through the ovary reveals the developing seeds, (green oval structures).
An individual developing seed can
be seen to be white in colour when it is removed from the surrounding
green ovary covering.
When a stamen is pulled away from
the flower, the connecting plant material tears away to form an
extremely thin ribbon. The microscope reveals the fine parallel
strands that comprise the material.
Snake Flower –
This close relative of
Chincherinchee possesses beautiful orange, cup-shaped flowers.
These flowers also have six petals, but the diameter tends to be
smaller than those of Chincherinchee.
A single unopened bud can be seen
The cup-shape of each flower is
evident in the left image below. As the flowers age, they flatten
out as in the right image.
Notice that the flower stalks in
this species are longer than in those of Chincherinchee.
Although Snake Flower has a raceme,
it is not as spectacular or as tightly packed as that of Cincherinchee.
Each flower has six stamens and a
Notice that the pistil has a bright
orange stigma, and that the style is so short that it is almost
non-existent. The ovary is a dark brown colour.
A higher magnification reveals the
structure of a Snake Flower stamen.
The front of each anther is divided
into two pollen covered lobes with white undersides.
Fine white hairs coat the surface
of the stigma. These hairs help to hold pollen to the surface
after it has been transported to the flower by visiting insects.
The three lobed structure of the
stigma, and two-lobed structure of an anther can be seen clearly below.
Arab’s Eyes –
This plant has a very long leafless
stem, (often more than a metre in length), with a roughly
umbrella-shaped arrangement of small, waxy, white flowers on top.
The distinctive green-black ovary gives the plant its common
name. The flower stems are longer than those of the other two
species, and the blooms are smaller in diameter.
A closer view shows the waxy
flowers, and beige colour of the raceme of unopened buds.
The anther is, as usual, coated
with fine pollen grains.
One of the three lobes of the
stigma can be seen in focus in the image on the left below. The
image to the right is a more highly magnified photograph of the same
Phase-contrast illumination reveals
that each pollen grain has a deep longitudinal groove on its surface.
If part of the surface of the ovary
is peeled away, the developing seeds are just visible beneath a roughly
textured translucent membrane. (The small circle at the middle
left of the image is an air bubble.)
The following photomicrograph shows
surface detail on the ovary.
Developing seeds within the ovary
can be seen below.
In Canada, the three species
illustrated in this article are found only as cut-flowers.
Nevertheless, their long-lived, and strikingly beautiful blooms can
provide interesting subjects for macro-photography during the long,
The photographs in the article were
taken with an eight megapixel Sony CyberShot DSC-F 828 equipped with
achromatic close-up lenses (Nikon 5T, 6T, Sony VCL-M3358, and shorter
focal length achromat) used singly or in combination. The lenses screw
into the 58 mm filter threads of the camera lens. (These produce
a magnification of from 0.5X to 10X for a 4x6 inch image.) Still
higher magnifications were obtained by using a macro coupler (which has
two male threads) to attach a reversed
50 mm focal length f 1.4 Olympus SLR lens to the F 828. (The
magnification here is about 14X for a 4x6 inch image.) The
photomicrographs were taken with a Leitz SM-Pol microscope (using a
dark ground condenser), and the Coolpix 4500.
All comments to the author Brian Johnston are welcomed.
Microscopy UK or their contributors.
Published in the
February 2006 edition of Micscape.
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