Saturday, November 3, 2012

The star of Bethlehem

Plant and animal names are a fascinating subject and can be a good topic for research and studies. 

The large star of Bethlehem, a spring-flowering plant, is a case in point.

In Maltese this flower is known as ħalib it-tajr kbir, a distinctive name for a beautiful flower but this is probably not the name country people used when referring to it. 

It is also known as ħara taċ-ċawl meaning jackdaws’ faeces. 

A hundred years ago such a name would have been considered as too rude to be used in print. 

The authors of a book on Maltese flora written in the early 20th century left the name of this species out from their book. 

Sometime later somebody coined a new name by using its scientific name Ornithogalum and translated it into Maltese. 

Ornithogalum is made up of two Greek words ornis meaning bird and gala meaning milk  a name given to it because of its white flowers and because ‘birds’ milk’ was used by the Romans to describe wonderful things, hence ħalib it-tajr.

The white flowers of the large star of Bethlehem open on a stalk that is about thirty centimtres high which is just tall enough for the flowers to stand above the surrounding vegetation. 

It belongs to a family of bulbous plants found mostly in Europe and southern Africa. The family consists of about 150 species although not all are large and showy as this species.

Two other species, which also flower in spring, can be found in the Maltese islands. Both are much smaller.

The lesser star of Bethlehem known in Maltese as ħalib it-tajt skars was believed to be extinct but was found again less than ten years ago near Buskett. The other species, the southern star of Bethlehem, ħalib it-tajr żgħir in Maltese, is frequently found in rocky areas especially in late spring when much of the vegetation has dried up. 

This article was published in The Times on 25.04.2012

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