Ornithogalum saundersiae

Family : Hyacinthaceae
Common names : giant chincherinchee ( Eng. ); reuse tjienkerientjee (Afr.)


The giant chincherinchee is an attractive, easily cultivated garden plant and produces eye-catching, long-lasting flowers that are very suitable for as cut flowers.

Plants in flowerThis bulbous plant is deciduous and dormant in winter. It forms an erect rosette of dark green, shiny, sword-shaped leaves of up to 500 mm long in spring. Flat-topped, many-flowered inflorescences of up to 1.5 m tall are produced in summer (January to April). The star-shaped flowers are ivory or white with a pronounced black ovary in the centre. Plants are usually gregarious and the bulbs multiply rapidly to form dense stands.

This species is not threatened. It has in fact been recorded to have increased dramatically in certain areas of Mpumalanga and Swaziland .

Distribution and Habitat
The giant chincherinchee favours rocky outcrops in hilly country and occurs in Mpumalanga, Swaziland and the KwaZulu-Natal mountains. Since the plants are winter-dormant they can withstand severe frost, making them ideal garden plants for areas with high summer rain and cold dry winters.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Ornithogalum is the largest genus of the family Hyacinthaceae in southern Africa . It contains a total of more than 200 species, of which ± 123 occur in southern Africa. Other members of the genus are found in the rest of Africa, Europe and western Asia . Several species are widely cultivated. The origin of the genus name dates back to ancient Greek and means bird's milk. There are various opinions about the reason why this name was chosen, but the Romans used the term to indicate something wonderful. A Greek proverb also mentioned that rare things are as unobtainable as bird's milk. The common name of the genus, chincherinchee, refers to the sound made by the stiff, glossy flower stalks when they are rubbed together by the wind.

Black ovaries in the centre of each flower

The species, O. saundersiae, was named after Mrs Katharine Saunders (1824-1901), a well-known plant collector and artist. She sent bulbs of this species to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, in 1887.

Uses and cultural aspects
O. saundersiae is often seen in cultivation and is very useful for cut-flowers, because its flowers are so long-lasting. However, like many other members of the hyacinth family, this species is extremely poisonous and has caused severe cattle losses in Mpumalanga and Swaziland . An early symptom of poisoning is temporary blindness. Other symptoms of more severe poisoning include gastro-enteritis, polyuria, restlessness and a rapid pulse. Tests done at Onderstepoort showed that 5 kg of fresh green leaves can kill a calf weighing 140 kg in three days. Sheep that received two doses of 5 kg each died within 60 hours. Apparently the toxicity of the leaves and stems diminishes after the flowering period.

Flower heads

Growing Ornithogalum saundersiae

O. saundersiae is very easy to cultivate and can make a splendid display in any garden. It is advisable to plant groups of plants (up to 20 or more) together for the most striking effect. The plants can withstand severe frost, require an average amount of water and favour full sun. However, in the hot, inland areas they seem to produce better flowers when planted in an area that is shaded in the afternoon. Plants thrive in a variety of soils, but prefer humus-rich soil. It is important that the soil drains well to prevent the bulb from rotting.

Bulbs multiply readily and are easily propagated by bulblets. When a grouping appears crowded, usually after about four years, bulbs can be lifted during winter and separated before replanting. For the best results, plant bulbs about 3-5 cm deep and 15-20 cm apart, in August and September. Keep the bulbs moist during the growing season with regular deep waterings. Increase the amount of water given just before the flowering period to keep the plants growing strongly. Gradually decrease the water given after flowering and as the leaves die down. The bulbs require very little water in winter, as they are dormant during this time.

The giant chincherinchee can also be propagated from seed, but this is a much slower process to produce flowering plants.

References and further reading

  • Kellerman, T.S. Coezer, J.A.W. & Naudé, T.W. 1988. Plant poisonings and mycotoxicoses of livestock in southern Africa . Oxford University Press, Cape Town .
  • Obermeyer, A.A. 1970. Ornithogalum saundersiae Baker. Flowering Plants of Africa 41: t. 1619.
  • Obermeyer, A.A. 1978. Ornithogalum : a revision of the southern African species (Hyacinthacaeae). Bothalia 12: 323-376.
  • Pienaar, K. 1992. Die Suid-Afrikaanse: watter blom is dit? Struik, Cape Town .
  • Van der Spuy, I. 1976. Wild flowers of South Africa for the garden. Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg .
  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa . Livingstone, London .


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This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website www.plantzafrica.com.