Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department




Common names:          

False Sea Onion, Sea Onion, German Onion, German Flower, Healing Onion or Meerzwiebel

Scientific name:         Ornithogalum caudatum   

Explanation of scientific name:       

Ornithogalum  - Ornithog – alum, Greek for bird’s milk, probably alluding to the egg-like color of the flowers of some species in the genus.

caudatum         - caudate (tail-like appendage) probably referring to the long, tapered, and pointed leaves.

The False Sea Onion is one member of the over 100 species in the genus Ornithogalum.  Most of the other members of the genus are relatively obscure, but gardeners may be familiar with the spring flowering bulb Ornithogalum umbellatum (Star of Bethlehem).  The Ornithogalum species belong to the large Lily family (Liliaceae), and have a number of closely related bulbous flowering plants such as tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils.

The False Sea Onion is native to South Africa, but has a worldwide distribution as an ornamental plant.  It is considered to be an old-fashioned windowsill plant in that its popularity peaked around the turn of the century, when it thrived near the windows of poorly heated rooms.  Central heating and the availability of a wider variety of houseplants led to its decline in popularity, and today it is somewhat of a rarity in houseplant collections.

Growing from a bulb reaching over four inches in diameter (and usually showing above the soil), the False Sea Onion produces about six leaves that can be as long as three feet.  A healthy plant will produce a large flower stalk at least once a year, bearing 50 to 100 flowers that open in succession for an extended period of bloom.  The plant can be propagated by offsets (tiny bulbs produced at the base of the parent bulb) or by seed.

Besides its use as an ornamental, the False Sea Onion was utilized in the past for medicinal purposes.  Crushed leaves were tied over cuts and bruises to speed healing, and the bulb was cooked into a syrup with rock candy to cure colds.