helmonit gladiola 248.88.
(photo credit: David Simons)
The sternbergia, helmonit gedola in Hebrew, is one of Israel's most impressive flowers. It grows disjointedly from the north to south of the country, indicating past climatic or geographical changes that broke its linear spread. The sternbergia grows from a bulb and is a member of the same family as the daffodil, amaryllis and the desert lilies. The trigger for the bulb to flower is a drop in temperature. This is why the mountain populations flower earlier than those growing on the plains. Each bulb produces one or two flowers.
The sternbergia is one of Israel's 30 or so harbingers of autumn, and like all of them is both a geophyte and hysteranthous; its leaves appear after the flowers. Over 99 percent of Israel's flowers are synanthous - the leaves and flowers appear together - and the vast majority of them bloom in the spring and summer. These flowers have to compete for pollinators, whereas, by flowering in the autumn and winter, with the sternbergia it is the pollinators that have to compete for the flowers, greatly increasing those flowers' chances of pollination.
The sternbergia produces both pollen and nectar, which serve as payment to its pollinators. Unlike most flowers it has two different types of nectary that produce different types of nectar. Research has shown that the flower is pollinated by two different types of insect - honey bees and hoverflies, and that each type of insect is attracted to a different type of nectary. The flowers have six anthers, three at the base of the flower, from which the bees collect pollen, and three higher up in the flower, which is where the hoverflies eat the pollen. This minimizes competition inside the flower and increases the chances of pollination. The flower also uses two methods of attracting pollinators - the color, which attracts the bees, and the scent, which attracts the hoverflies.
Each flower blooms for about a week to 10 days during which the color of the flower changes from bright yellow to orange-yellow to brown-yellow. For the first couple of days the flower closes in the evening and reopens the following morning, after which it stays open day and night. The anthers are not immediately viable with the opening of the flower, so self-pollination is initially impossible, but later, as a safety measure, it can occur.
The ovary is underground and this is where the fruit develops. At the end of winter it is pushed up out of the flower and in the spring the seed capsule opens and the seeds are dispersed by ants that collect them in order to eat their fatty appendages. The sternbergia also reproduces vegetatively.
Bulbs, which are food stores, have to ensure that they do not become the food supply of hungry animals. To this end, bulbs protect themselves in a number of ways, among which is a tendency to contain poisons. Sternbergia bulbs contain a number of poisonous compounds, two of which, lycorine and haemanthidine, have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties greater than those of aspirin.
Sternbergia clusiana, its botanical name, is derived from the names of two botanists, Sternberg and Clusius. Clusius, whose full name was Charles de l'Ecluse, was the the man who introduced tulip growing to Holland. The plant's Hebrew name helmonit is derived from the Hebrew word for egg yolk, helmon, and describes the flower's color.
The helmonit, like all the other members of its family growing in Israel, is protected by law. n
How to get there:
Drive to the settlement of Kfar Eldad (not far from Nokdim and Tekoa). From the entrance gate drive 400 meters on the asphalt road. The road then becomes a dirt track for 650 meters and then an asphalt road again leading to the settlement of Ma'aleh Rehavam. After a further 550 meters the road crosses a dry stream bed called Wadi Abu Muchrab. Park here and walk right along the wadi. The sternbergias start after 50 meters. Only discovered in 2004, this is the largest concentration of the flowers in Israel with between 100,000 and 200,000 flowers.