Star of Bethlehem flower

The Star of Bethlehem flower is beautifully symbolic through name alone. However, its beauty can be deceiving both because of its toxicity and due to its invasive nature in some regions.

The Star of Bethlehem flower (Ornithogalum umbellatum) is a perennial flowering bulb native to Western and Central Europe that blooms in late spring. Flowers have six white star-like petals with a green stripe on the underside. The small, thumb-sized flowers are very symbolic in many Christian cultures. This plant reproduces through bulb division and naturalizes easily, and is now invasive in some climates of North America.

Read on to learn all about the Star of Bethlehem flower.

The Star Of Bethlehem flower

The Star of Bethlehem plant is a bulbous perennial that can grow anywhere from 4 inches to 12 inches tall when fully bloomed. White flowers bloom in clusters from the bulbs each spring, typically in May-June.

Some cultivars have upright-pointing flowers, while others have downward-pointing flowers. When the hot weather arrives, these white flowers turn yellow until they whither away. The leaves are grass-like and maintain their look year-round.

The Star of Bethlehem plant is a native plant in many parts of Europe but is considered an invasive plant in most of North America. Gardeners in North America are encouraged to check with their local authority prior to purchasing or planting this species, as it is likely listed as invasive and should not be planted at all.

“Star-of-Bethlehem is a weed that row crop producers may only rarely
encounter, but it is certainly makes up for its rarity with its troublesome
management. The perennial weed is an escaped horticultural plant that
produces small, six-petal white flowers, and reproduces from underground

Perdue University Extension

These plants can commonly be mistaken for wild garlic. The simplest way to know their difference is that garlic will have a distinct smell when crushed or snapped, whereas this plant will not. Star of Bethelem foliage also tends to be shorter than that of wild garlic. These plants have a very territorial nature and they can quickly invade a lawn or yard in their quest to take up as much space as possible.

Origins of “The Star Of Bethlehem” plant

The Star of Bethlehem is the common name for several Ornithogalum species of plants. Ornithogalum is now considered to be part of the Asparagaceae family (asparagus family), but was originally thought to be a member of the Liliaceae or Lily family (Source). Well-known species include Ornithogalum arabicum and Ornithogalum Umbellatum. These plants are native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea.

Star Of Bethlehem was imported to North America as an ornamental plant but has escaped cultivation. In some regions in the USA in particular, the plant has become naturalized and is considered to be invasive.

“This plant is weedy and potentially invasive and should not be planted in the Midwest.”

Missouri Department of Conservation

Ornithogalum, deriving from the Greek translation for “Bird’s milk”, was first used to reference this type of plant in the 18th century by Linnaeus when he had begun compiling and standardizing plant names (Source). The Latin name is ultimately derived from ornisornithos, and gala, the ancient Greek words for “bird” and “milk.” The name is thought to be related to the white color of the flowers.

Other names for the Star Of Bethlehem flower include Grass lily, Nap-at-Noon, and Eleven-o’clock lady.

Removing Star of Bethlehem plants from your garden

The most effective way to remove the Star of Bethlehem is to dig out each little bulb in March as soon as they emerge. They must be dug out carefully to not break off the leaves and don’t leave any bulbs in the ground. This will undoubtedly lead to more Star of Bethlehem regrowing.

If the bulbs remain buried, the plant may then, unbeknownst to you, grow throughout your lawn or garden. You may be unaware because you thought you removed everything but may have missed some. You can go back and check regularly on bulbs that you have been trying to remove.

The best method is to be proactive in looking for bulbs in early March as they start to emerge. The earlier they are dug up, the easier it will be to control and eradicate them from your yard (Source).

When weeding the plant, do not put any of the dirt that was in that part of your lawn in an unaffected area since this might cause more to grow as well. Even a small bulb in the midst of the dirt can cause another outbreak of this plant.

How to grow the Star of Bethlehem flower

Star Of Bethlehem flowers are most commonly planted in their native regions of Western and Central Europe. Ideally, these plants should be grown in partial to full-sun locations. Look for a spot with at least 6 hours of direct sun per day. This will allow the plant to get plenty of sunlight for growing in rich bunches. Provide afternoon shade in particularly hot climates, as the plant grows best in temperate locales.

While this plant is quite easy to grow, it will grow best in well-drained soil. Try to avoid planting locations where water tends to pool after rain.

Symbolism of the Star of Bethlehem flower

The Star of Bethlehem flower has several important meanings that need to be taken into consideration when thinking of a certain symbolic meaning that you are wanting to accentuate. Innocence, purity, honesty, and hope are all possible interpretations of this plant’s symbolism (Source).

Its name is referencing the city of Bethlehem, which is most commonly known as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. For many Christians around the world, this location holds meaningful significance and interpretation through events and interpretations of its name.

White has strong connotations in color theory and symbolic significance. White often denotes that something is pure, perfect, or innocent. Because of this, it’s somewhat ironic that the flower that was chosen to relate to the biblical Star of Bethlehem has turned out to be a real nuisance for many gardeners. The plant may be poisonous, but its name and appearance are beautiful.

Toxicity of the Star of Bethlehem plant

The Star of Bethlehem belongs to a group of plants that contain naturally-occurring poisons that affect the heart, specifically cardenolides or bufadienolides. This can be dangerous to any who consumes the plant in any way.

Any part of the plant that is ingested is considered poisonous. Even when the plant is dead, measures should be taken to avoid any possibility of the plant being added to hay or other mixes of grain given to livestock. It can be dangerous and cause sickness. Some common signs of poisoning in livestock can include stomach and intestinal irritation, abdominal pain, irregular heart rate, and in some rare cases death.

How does the Star of Bethlehem plant spread

This plant is not known to easily spread seedlings through pollination, but rather through bulb division. These flowers can be quite invasive and multiply to overtake yards. They will grow rapidly if not taken care of. Many are found along waterways since they can be easily established when bulbs float down streams (Source).

In non-native zones, these bulbs are often considered a nuisance when wild since they have dense clumps that spread very easily and quickly. Moving soil and other parts of the plant around to new soil or areas of your yard or field will allow the plant to invade and grow in new territory.

Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a quintessential Canadian gardener. An engineer by trade, she tends to an ever-expanding collection of plants. In her world, laughter blooms as freely as her flowers, and every plant is raised with a dash of Canadian grit.

Mary Jane is a certified Master Gardener and also holds a Permaculture Design Certificate. She's also a proud mom of three, teaching her little sprouts the crucial difference between a garden friend and foe.

When she's not playing in the dirt, Mary Jane revels in her love for Taylor Swift, Gilmore Girls, ice hockey, and the surprisingly soothing sounds of bluegrass covers of classic hip-hop songs. She invites you to join her garden party, a place where you can share in the joy of growing and where every day is a new opportunity to find the perfect spot for yet another plant.

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