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What is a Star of Bethlehem Plant?

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  • Written By: Heather Martin
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2016
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A star of Bethlehem plant is a perennial herbaceous plant with small flowers that have six petals. Flowers typically are white but also can be yellow, orange, pink, red or blue. Different species of the plant are native to the Mediterranean region and Southern Africa. The star of Bethlehem plant has star-like flowers and was named after the star in the Biblical story of Jesus' birth. Several species of these flowers within the genus Ornithogalum share the common name "star of Bethlehem," but the species Ornithogalum umbellatum and Ornithogalum arabicum are the best known.

Ornithogalum umbellatum grows 6 inches (15 cm) tall with delicate white flowers on single, leafless stalks. The flowers have a green center and a green stripe running down the backside. The plant has thin, bright green, arching foliage with a white stripe down the middle. This species is a low-maintenance plant that thrives in moist, well-drained soil and prefers full afternoon sun. It produces foliage in the late winter and blooms sweet-smelling flowers in late spring, with the blooms opening in the morning and closing in the evening.

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Ornithogalum arabicum grows 18 inches (46 cm) tall with white or pale cream flowers that grow in clusters on a thin stalk, and the flowers have a dark green-black center. It has dark green foliage and sweet-smelling blooms in the summer. Unopened flower buds are beige in color. This plant prefers full sun and needs regular watering, but over-watering can rot the bulb. This is a good flower for cutting.

A star of Bethlehem plant propagates by seed and by producing tiny bulblets. Though they are handsome plants, caution must be exercised when one plants them in a garden, because they spread easily and can overcome other plants in the flowerbed. To avoid this threat, a star of Bethlehem plant should be grown indoors in pots and containers. When sowing, the bulbs should be covered with 4 inches (10 cm) of topsoil and spaced 3 inches (8 cm) apart.

Some species of the star of Bethlehem plant, including Ornithogalum umbellatum and Ornithogalum arabicum, are poisonous. The foliage has been known to kill grazing cattle. Children, dogs, cats and livestock should be kept away from this plant, which also might be known as snowdrop, nap at noon, eleven-o'clock lady or sleepydick.

In folk medicine, the bulbs of some species of this plant were used as mood elevators and as heart stimulators for cardiac arrest. Western medicine, however, labels the bulbs unsafe for consumption. The bulbs contain chemicals called cardiac glycosides that have life-threatening side effects such as heart arrhythmia and shortness of breath.

Eradicating star of Bethlehem plants from a garden can be difficult. The waxy leaves make it very resistant to herbicides. The best way for one to stop its spread is to painstakingly dig up all of the bulbs.

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