star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)
Pyrenees star of Bethlehem
SCIENTIFIC SYNONYMS: There are no scientific synonyms for
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Pending confirmation.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name for star-of-Beth-
lehem is Ornithogalum umbellatum L.
Other members of the Lily Family that are somewhat similar in appearance
include the Allium spp. (Onions) and Nothoscordum bivalve (false garlic). However, false garlic and the various species of Onions have umbels of
flowers and the filaments of their flowers are thread-like. Another cultivat-
ed plant, Ornithogalum nutans (nodding star-of-Bethlehem), rarely escapes
into the wild. It has nodding flowers on elongated racemes and each of its filaments have a pair of small teeth at the apex. The pedicels of this latter
species are usually ½" or less.
NATIVE STATUS: Introduced, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS:
Habit: A perennial, that grows from a fleshy, egg-shaped, 1/2 - 1 1/2
inch long bulb. Flowering stalks are usually 6-9 inches tall, and arise
singly from the center of the leaves.
Leaves: Leaves appear as a tuft of shiny, thick grass, initially growing
erect, but falling to the ground as they elongate. Leaves are hollow and
dark green with a white midvein and grow up to 1 foot long and 1/5 inch
Flowers: Leafless, smooth and erect, flowering stalks branch above, and
one flower is produced at each branch tip, creating a spreading cluster of
4-20 flowers. Flowers are star-shaped, with six white petals and a yellow-
green center, and measure 1 inch across. There is a single pistil. A stamen
has a yellow or light brown anther at its apex, and a white filament under-
neath. This filament is lanceolate or narrowly triangular in shape (tapering
at the top), which is a distinctive characteristic for this species. Petals are
oval, with a pointed tip, and petal undersides display a wide green stripe
down the middle. There is a pleasant floral scent. The flowers open during
the morning and usually close by noon.
Fruit/Seeds: Each flower produces a three-celled, oblong seed capsule
that contains several black seeds.
Roots: The root system consists of a bulb about 1" long that is ovoid. This
plant reproduces by its seeds and vegetative offsets (primarily the latter).
It often forms dense colonies that can exclude other species during the
REGENERATION PROCESS: Star-of-Bethlehem does reproduce by
seed, but its principal method of reproduction is by the formation of num-
erous bulblets (small bulbs) at the base of the parent bulb. When detached
from the parent bulb, individual bulblets each produce a new plant.
HABITAT TYPES: Habitats include cemetery prairies, grassy meadows,
sunny or semi-shaded banks of streams and drainage ditches, floodplain
forest, in early succession forest, and miscellaneous waste areas. It also
occurs in moist gardens, lawns, cropland, pastures. This species is usually
found in degraded sites, although it can invade high quality natural habitats
and displace native species of plants that bloom during the spring.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Star-of-Bethlehem prefers full sun to light
shade, moist to mesic conditions, and a fertile loam. Growth occurs during
the spring; the foliage withers away by mid-summer. Even though star of Bethlehem requires moist conditions while growing, it can can tolerate dry
soil after dieback. It is very aggressive during its short growing period, eas-
ily outcompeting other plants.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: Small clumps of leaves appear mid-
spring, and continue to elongate into late spring when flowers are produc-
ed. The blooming period lasts about 2 weeks, with flowers opening late
on sunny mornings and closing by sunset. Flowering is followed by seed
set, and subsequently, stems and leaves die back to the bulb by mid-sum-
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Star-of-Bethlehem is found throughout
the eastern United States and Canadian provinces. It can be found in all
the Gulf Coast states as far west as Texas and into most of the mid-West.
It also has been introduced into the far western states, much of the Rocky Mountain states, and British Columbia. It is feasible this introduced spec-
ies may eventually spread to all states and most of the Canadian provinces.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION: To be determined.
IMPORTANCE AND USES: The primary pollinators of the flowers are probably bees.
The foliage and bulbs contain toxic alkaloids that can poison livestock
(flowers and bulbs contain glycosides similar to digitalis). The alkaloids
are concentrated in the flowers and bulbs. Ingestion of star-of-Bethlehem
can cause irritation of the lips, throat, and tongue, severe intestinal trouble,
nausea, salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, skin irritation following prolonged
contact, arrhythmia of the heart, and even heart failure. In some countries
children have been poisoned after ingesting the flowers or bulbs. Ingesting
two bulbs can cause shortness of breath in adults.
It is noxious in Alabama, and is considered invasive in 10 other U.S. states.
The cooked bulbs are reportedly edible to humans, although suitable cau-
tion should be exercised.
Star-of-Bethlehem is often planted as an ornamental, and has escaped cul-
tivation, due to its aggressive growth habit. Before flowering occurs, star
of Bethlehem appears similar to wild onion or garlic, but the distinctive
odor of these plants is absent. In fact, when in bloom, star-of-Bethlehem
flowers emit a pleasant scent.
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