Star of Bethlehem: Distribution, Habitat, and Growth

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Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)

Star of Bethlehem

 

Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)  is an aggressive weed of lawns, pastures, gardens, and many no-till agriculture fields of the United States’ temperate regions of the world.

Etymology

The genus name Ornithogalum has derived from the Greek words ornis, meaning “bird,” and gala, meaning “milk.”

The genus was named and described by Dioscorides (40 to 90 C.E.) in De Materia Medica because they have an abundance of white flowers that when “opened they are like
milk.

” Umbellatum” means umbels or umbellets.

Carl Linnaeus first described and named the Star of Bethlehem in his Species Plantarum in 1753.

He described this plant and named it Dove’s dung, which is mentioned in the Bible (II Kings 6:25) during the siege of Samaria.

Whether it is actually the Dove’s dung referred to in the Bible is unclear, but its presence in that region of the Middle East today may indicate that it could very well be a plant of biblical times.

Later, when Antoine Laurent de Jussieu described and placed the plants in the Liliaceae.
(Lily) family, Star of Bethlehem was added.

However, relatively recent revisions have placed it in the Asparagaceae family.

Families whose seed coats possessed phytomelan, which is a dark, brittle, charcoal-like coating, were placed into Asparagales, and those lacking that seed coat remained in the Liliaceae.

Apparently, more work is needed because the placement of some genera remains questionable.

However, for this article, we will consider it a member of the Lily family because that is where the PLANTS database (NRCS 2015) assigns it.

The Lily family consists of about 250 genera and 3,700 species. Several ornamental plants are members of the Lily family; however, few are considered weeds.

Two exceptions are wild garlic (Allium vineale L.) and grape-hyacinth [Muscari botryoides (L.) Mill.]. Wild garlic and grape hyacinth are often confused with Star of Bethlehem
before flowering (author’s personal experience).

However, the leaves of Star of Bethlehem do not have an onion or garlic scent, and wild garlic lacks the distinctive white midveins on its leaves.

Common names for this plant include Star of Bethlehem, common Star of Bethlehem, doves dung, snowdrops, starflower, summer snowflake, sleepy dick, nap-at-noon, bird milk, birds milk, Bethlehem star, chincherinchee, eleven-o’clock-lady, ten-o’clock lady, bath asparagus, star of Hungary, and in Old English, white filde onyon.

In French, it is referred to as ornithogale en omrelle or dame de onze heures, the Germans call it Doldiger Milchstern or Stern von Bethlehem, and in Spanish, it is Cullebrila ajera,
varita de San Josi, or ajo de lobo.

The common name, Star of Bethlehem, is based on its star-shaped flowers and is based on the star of Bethlehem, which appeared in the biblical account of the birth of Jesus.

The names sleepy dick and nap-at-noon refer to the characteristic of the flowers to close at night or when not in full sunlight.

Description

Star of Bethlehem is a succulent, cool-season, perennial herb, which grows from a truncated bulb with linear basal, erect leaves.

Leaves are narrow and smooth channeled with conspicuous, pale-green to whitish stripes near the midrib on the upper surface.

Flowers are perfect and typically number 3 to 20, arranged in a short-bract raceme of white flowers.

The flowers contain six separate tepals (a segment of the outer whorl in flower with no differentiation between petals and sepals) and six stamens free from the perianth.

The tepals are distinct white with a bright-green stripe down the center of the back and are oblong or elliptic-lanceolate.

The tepal filaments are broad and flat, at least at the base, and the anthers are oblong.

The ovary is three celled, and a few seeds develop in each cell after pollination.

Distribution, Habitat, and Growth

Star of Bethlehem is an escaped horticultural plant often sold as a spring ornamental.

This plant can be found widely distributed in the northern United States, Canada, and around much of the northern hemisphere.

It is native to Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. It prefers wet environments and can often be readily found along rivers, streams, and low, wet areas of pastures, agriculture
fields, and yards.

The Thompson Indians of British Columbia used star-of-Bethlehem plants only ornamentally, as decorations, which is another means by which it spreads.

Star of Bethlehem is typically found in no-till production agriculture fields but can also be found in reduced-tillage systems with bulbs germinating from 7 to 10 cm deep.

The coat of the bulb is membranous.

Plants can be aggressive spreaders in the garden (multiplying by bulbils) and quickly naturalize garden areas, often escaping into the wild.

Plants go dormant after bloom and do not like heavy moisture from late-summer rains. Self-sown seedlings may appear.

Toxicity

Star of Bethlehem is a toxic plant, although poisoning cases are not commonly reported.

All parts of the plant contain cardiac glycosides. Flowers and bulbs contain glycosides
similar to digitalis.

In some countries, children have been poisoned after ingesting the flowers or bulbs.

Ingesting two bulbs can cause shortness of breath in adults.

Symptoms of toxicosis include nausea, salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, and shortness of breath, as well as pain, burning, and swelling of lips, tongue, and throat.

Skin irritation can occur after prolonged contact. The highest concentrations of glycosides occur in the bulbs, which remain underground, in most cases, and are not exposed to
grazing animals.

Symptoms of toxicosis in livestock are stomach and intestinal irritation, which can be followed by heart rate and rhythm problems.

If symptoms are allowed to continue, they can lead to fatal cardiac arrhythmias. Animals, such as sheep and cattle, have died from eating star-of-Bethlehem.

Livestock poisoning from feeding on Star of Bethlehem is rare because bulbs must be delivered to the surface through processes like frost heaving or tillage for livestock to get enough access to be poisoned.

Although rare, poisoning has been reported and, at times, in significant numbers. Specific examples of livestock loss to poisoning have been as high as a thousand sheep in Maryland.

Several poisonous species of Ornithogalum native to South Africa have been responsible for heavy losses among horses.

Livestock who have succumbed to poisoning by this plant have severe reddening and hemorrhaging of the mucosa of the stomach and intestines.

Weediness

Star of Bethlehem is a weed of managed turfgrass throughout the upper transition zone (above the 35th parallel) of the United States.

Star of Bethlehem can invade open areas lacking plant competition. Infestations have been reported on golf-course fairways in Tennessee that have been associated with core aerification practices.

These Star of Bethlehem infestations negatively affect the aesthetic and functional quality of golf-course fairways.

Because seed production is rare, the key to control is through the management of underground bulbs.

Some fields have an estimated 91 million bulbs ha-1, with each main bulb able to produce as many as seven axillary bulbs (bulblets) annually.

The thick vegetation and bulb density impedes planting practices and can reduce crop
establishment and vigor.

In some documented cases, bulbs can comprise up to 8% of the total soil volume in the top 8 cm of soil, which affects soil-tossed and soil-to-root contact and water availability.

High bulb densities can create or accentuate draughty plant conditions. Scattered plants should be removed by hand and the bulbs destroyed by burning or drying.

In a replicated greenhouse trial, chipping the bulbs did not harm star-of-Bethlehem and actually increased bulblet production.

Therefore, tillage operations that cut or chip mother bulbs might increase both the spread and density of star-of-Bethlehem infestations.

Additionally, the Star of  Bethlehem does not require chilling of dormant bulbs for emergence, although chilling may delay plant growth and leaf emergence.

Star of Bethlehem has nonuniform leaf emergence in the spring, which makes the timing of foliar applications of herbicides to control this weed difficult.

Also, very few herbicides have proven effective at controlling Star of Bethlehem in field conditions.

As far as weeds go, the Star of Bethlehem is an ancient plant with a long and controversial history.

It is possible that it was the plant referred to in II Kings 6:25 “There was a great famine in Samaria; and behold, they besieged it until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a fourth of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver.”

Regardless of whether it was the plant referred to during the siege of Samaria, from a weed perspective, the Star of Bethlehem should be respected as a continual companion of man since at least biblical times.

Resources

Anonymous (2015a) New American Bible: II Kings 6:25. HTTP://
www.usccb.org/bible/2kings/6. Accessed March 24, 2015
Anonymous (20156) Ornithogalum narbonense, southern star of
Bethlehem: Flowers in Israel. http://www.flowersinisrael.com/
ornithogalumnarbonens_page.htm. Accessed March 24, 2015