Walk on eggs

Tread carefully when you visit Israel's largest concentration of 'helmonit gedola,' one of the country's most impressive flowers.

The sternbergia, helmonit gedola in Hebrew,is one of Israel's most impressive flowers. It grows disjointedly fromthe north to south of the country, indicating past climatic orgeographical changes that broke its linear spread. The sternbergiagrows 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 isa drop in temperature. This is why the mountain populations flowerearlier than those growing on the plains. Each bulb produces one or twoflowers.

The sternbergia is one of Israel's 30 or soharbingers of autumn, and like all of them is both a geophyte andhysteranthous; its leaves appear after the flowers. Over 99 percent ofIsrael's flowers are synanthous - the leaves and flowers appeartogether - and the vast majority of them bloom in the spring andsummer. These flowers have to compete for pollinators, whereas, byflowering in the autumn and winter, with the sternbergia it is thepollinators that have to compete for the flowers, greatly increasingthose flowers' chances of pollination.

The sternbergia produces both pollen and nectar, which serve aspayment to its pollinators. Unlike most flowers it has two differenttypes of nectary that produce different types of nectar. Research hasshown that the flower is pollinated by two different types of insect -honey bees and hoverflies, and that each type of insect is attracted toa different type of nectary. The flowers have six anthers, three at thebase of the flower, from which the bees collect pollen, and threehigher up in the flower, which is where the hoverflies eat the pollen.This minimizes competition inside the flower and increases the chancesof pollination. The flower also uses two methods of attractingpollinators - the color, which attracts the bees, and the scent, whichattracts the hoverflies.

Each flower blooms for about a week to 10 days during which thecolor of the flower changes from bright yellow to orange-yellow tobrown-yellow. For the first couple of days the flower closes in theevening and reopens the following morning, after which it stays openday and night. The anthers are not immediately viable with the openingof 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 fruitdevelops. At the end of winter it is pushed up out of the flower and inthe spring the seed capsule opens and the seeds are dispersed by antsthat collect them in order to eat their fatty appendages. Thesternbergia also reproduces vegetatively.

Bulbs, which are food stores, have to ensure that they do notbecome the food supply of hungry animals. To this end, bulbs protectthemselves in a number of ways, among which is a tendency to containpoisons. Sternbergia bulbs contain a number of poisonous compounds, twoof which, lycorine and haemanthidine, have anti-inflammatory andanalgesic 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 whointroduced tulip growing to Holland. The plant's Hebrew name helmonitis 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. 


How to get there:

Drive to the settlement of Kfar Eldad (not far from Nokdim andTekoa). From the entrance gate drive 400 meters on the asphalt road.The road then becomes a dirt track for 650 meters and then an asphaltroad again leading to the settlement of Ma'aleh Rehavam. After afurther 550 meters the road crosses a dry stream bed called Wadi AbuMuchrab. Park here and walk right along the wadi. The sternbergiasstart after 50 meters. Only discovered in 2004, this is the largestconcentration of the flowers in Israel with between 100,000 and 200,000flowers.