If it weren’t for the math, I might have studied astronomy. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by stars. The constellations, the Milky Way, a single twinkling light in the sky. I had even given my dogs a celestial middle name, the most recent being Dakota Star.
So it’s no wonder I’m such a fool for Ornithogalum umbellatum, or star of Bethlehem. This little bulb has followed me from house to house, always one of the first things I plant when I uproot myself and find a new home. It’s a sweet little plant that requires practically no care—just my type!—yet pops up each spring to provide a cluster of small white, star-shaped blossoms.
Long, narrow grasslike foliage emerges in a basal clump each spring and can reach to nearly 12 inches; it’s quite attractive on its own, although its fresh appeal is rather short-lived. The soft leaves begin to droop and fade a bit when flower stems begin to grow, usually in late spring but sometimes into early summer.
A single, sturdy flower stem grows to about 8 inches tall and terminates in an umbel-like cluster that supports a dozen or so small, white, star-shaped blooms. Each is only about 3/4- to 1-inch wide and features six petals, and the petals sport a slight green stripe on the back.
The clusters create constellations of pure and simple white stars in varying stages of emergence, making the bloom time last for a few weeks. The flowers tend to close in dim light, usually at sunset or on cloudy days.
Star of Bethlehem is native to northern Africa and the Middle East. And like some small bulbs, it can be aggressive. If allowed to naturalize, it will spread quickly, so it’s not suitable for a formal setting where plants are expected to remain well-behaved. Tiny bulblets are produced each season, and if you’re willing to sift through the soil to locate them, they can be collected either to control the plant’s spread or to encourage more beautiful stars. My stars of Bethlehem are confined in a planter between a brick retaining wall and concrete steps, where they’ve remained in place and have bloomed prolifically year upon year.
This small bulb is remarkably healthy and is not normally bothered by insects or diseases; consistently wet soil, however, can rot the bulbs. Because of its aggressive nature, it’s listed as a noxious weed in a couple of states.
But if you’ve got the right, protected spot—or are willing to keep it in check as it spreads—Ornithogalum umbellatum will light up the garden with a galaxy of brilliant stars.
Getty Images/Zoonar RF
But if you’ve got the right, protected spot-or are willing to keep it in check as it spreads-Ornithogalum umbellatum will light up the garden with a galaxy of brilliant stars.
Editorial Director, American Nurseryman
Name: Ornithogalum umbellatum
Common Name: Star of Bethlehem
Hardiness: Zones 4 to 9
Mature height: Foliage 12 inches; flower umbels 8 inches
Mature spread: 6 to 12 inches
Landscape use: Naturalizing in grassy areas; shrub and mixed borders; woodland settings; can be confined in containers
Ornamental characteristics: Grasslike foliage emerges before straight flower stems that terminate in umbel-like structures; 10 to 12 (or more!) white, star-shaped flowers on each stem