Star-of-Bethlehem, another spring bulb to try

Judith Adam

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Star-of-Bethlehem photograph by Ulf Eliasson

Hi again, and thanks for coming back to my blog. These are some ideas I’ve been thinking about as summer slides away and autumn creeps in.

Star-of-Bethlehem photograph by Ulf Eliasson
Star-of-Bethlehem photograph by Ulf Eliasson

Reading Stephen Westcott-Gratton’s article about lesser-known spring bulbs (“Unsung Bulbs For Spring,” Fall 2010, pages 58-63) has set me to thinking about another little darling of the spring that makes itself useful in hard-to-plant places: the star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum (Zone 4 with winter mulch, Zone 5 without mulch). In dry soils under maples or at the feet of large evergreen shrubs, fat clumps of white upturned flowers (several to a stem, and with a pale green stripe to each petal) shine in spring. I remember these from my grandmother’s garden, blooming with forsythia and P.J.M. rhododendron, and they were the first bulbs I planted in my own ground, under a maple. Once installed, they reproduce readily (from seeds and offsets), and soon new clumps appear to form a patchy groundcover. (In warmer climates they’re considered a nuisance spreader, but that’s unlikely in our colder soils.)

Star-of-Bethlehem is a member of the lily family (Liliaceae). It’s sometimes known as nap-at-noon and sleepydick, referring to the grass-like foliage that tends to lie down in an untidy manner when days grow warmer. The bulbs require moist soil and a half day of sun in spring, followed by shade and dry soil in summer. You can probably think of several difficult places in your garden where these little flowers will be an asset. They’re also highly nectariferous, producing lots of sweet nectar for early pollinators.

Ornithogalum is poisonous, containing toxic alkaloids (safe to touch, but do not ingest), and consequently entirely without pests. However, don’t let that put you off them; many of our garden plants are toxic (monkshood, delphinium, bleedingheart, lily-of-the-valley, narcissus), and we all know not to eat them.

I should have known better about Karl…

Calamagrostis x acutiflora  'Karl Foerster’ photo by Daryl Mitchell of Sakatoon, Sask.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ photo by Daryl Mitchell of Sakatoon, Sask.

Last spring I noticed that the clump of ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Zone 4) in my small, sloped front garden had spread outward, leaving behind a vacant centre. (I seem to remember writing something about this: see page 34 in the Fall 2010 issue of Gardening Making.) This is the growth pattern of many clump-forming ornamental grasses with prairie heritage, and a demonstration of how they effectively march from Saskatchewan to Alberta.

Preferring to attend to more instantly gratifying tasks (making tussie mussie bouquets and acquiring new roses), I didn’t take the time to get ‘Karl Foerster’ out and deal with him. And so, after a season of heat and frequently applied irrigation, I now see that the clump has gobbled up more territory and is huge, with a solid mass of roots. Unearthing it will unsettle a neighbouring boulder and disrupt plants in half the bed. What’s more, I’m probably not strong enough to do it alone, requiring an appeal for brawny assistance. (Oh slothful gardener!)

So here is what I will do: instead of trying to get the whole clump out, I’ll lightly excavate around the edges and use a pruning saw to cut through the roots, taking it out in smaller clumps and removing dead roots from the centre. This will make four to six new divisions, and the vacant space that remains can be replanted.

Using a thick serrated kitchen blade or short pruning saw to dismember large root balls in situ is far easier than struggling to lift the whole mass out. But it would have been better to do something about it in spring, when it was smaller. I look in the mirror and say, “I told you so.” (And by the way, Lee Valley Tools, , has a good root saw for just this purpose.)

Dept. of This and That

•  I have amazing success with self-sown cleome seeds! Three years ago I planted ‘Purple Queen’ annual cleome in a sunny spot among some rocks. They stayed in flower until late autumn, forming seed cases along the stems under the flowering tops. Seed must have spilled before the plants were pulled out, and each spring since then I’ve had spontaneous seedlings appear. These plants are husky and tall, and much sturdier than any I’ve ever grown from transplants. Although ‘Purple Queen’ is a hybrid, the colour has remained consistent (not always the case with seedling generations of hybrid plants). The seeds spend the winter on the soil surface and probably benefit from vernalization—the exposure to prolonged cold that enhances seed germination in similar summer annual plants such as ageratum, cosmos and calendula. It’s always nice to receive an unexpected bonus.

•  Plants respect hardiness zones, but pay no attention to international borders. That being the case, here’s a good source of information about spring bulbs and their companion plants, from Cornell University in New York: The photos of the plants through the seasons are explicit and very useful for designing a planted bed. Cornell University is located in approximately Canadian plant hardiness Zone 6b, but most of the illustrated bulbs and perennials have colder hardiness ratings.

See you again soon!

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8 thoughts on “Star-of-Bethlehem, another spring bulb to try”

  1. To Joy, Sept. 24

    Hello Joy,

    Yes, it should work. This manner of carving up a grass clump (while still in the ground) makes sense when dealing with a monster Miscanthus sinensis 'Purpurascens' (zone 4). Taking it out in sections will give you good sized bits to use, and you may have to give some away. (I find plants in containers and with accurate labels will disappear from the roadside over night.) If the centre of the clump is still vigorous, you can give it a reduction and leave it in place. But if the centre appears unproductive and has dead roots, get it out and replace with one of the vigorous baby clumps taken from the side. You'll feel positively masterful after this!

  2. Judith that was a great idea .. and I am wondering if I can manage to do that with my monster miscathus "purple flame grass" it is HUGE and I would like to slim it down a bit and find a new home for its "kids" ? haha .. seriously, is this possible for a really mature clump or should I avoid the headache ?


  3. To Andrea, Sept. 21

    Greetings Andrea,

    And thanks for reading my blog. It sounds like you've stumbled into every gardener's dream — to inherit a beautiful, ready-made garden! Beautiful plants (at least, in flower) with invasive inclination, like star of Bethlehem, don't belong in a small urban garden where every square foot is important, and especially not in a cultivated bed or planting area. They're going to be a headache when used that way! But when situated in waste areas, where nothing else will grow, they can be an asset and will provide charming flowers and cover otherwise bare soil. Your mother-in-law perhaps had enough garden wisdom to realise that! And you've benefited from her experience.

    — Judith

  4. Oh I'm so happy to have come to your blog for the first time and discover the name for those little white flowers….Star of Bethlehem! I inherited my Mother-in-law's garden when we moved into her house. She is a wonderful gardener and seems to have the magic touch for growing just about everything. However she rarely remembered the names of her plants or flowers, just planted what she liked, and when asked the name of certain ones will just reply "oh it grows this height, and white (or whichever colour)….you'll like it!" So I got the same response when asking her about the little white clumps of flowers…she didn't know! I like them though but didn't realise how invasive they could be till now. It doesn't surprise me as almost everything she planted is self seeding hence the months of work to finally bring the garden into some sort of order that I can happily live with! 🙂 I have also managed to label every plant as I have discovered it or found out the name if I didn't already know. Good article, thank you.

  5. To Lorraine, Sept. 21

    Hi Lorraine,

    So sleepydick was charming, but you didn't like his little ways? And you buried him under cement? May he rest in peace, and I get it — I absolutely won't mess with you!

    — Judith

  6. Hey Judith,

    When you speak, I listen. When you write, I pore over your words of gardening wisdom. But when you laud the lowly star-of-Bethlehem, I cannot but wonder why, of all the truly lovely flower bulbs available to gardeners, you would pick that one. When we moved into our house almost 30 years ago, star-of-Bethlehem was growing in small patches at the back of the garage. Charming, I thought. Then, the patches became increasingly larger, and altho' I admit the flowers are lovely, those stringy leaves were less than attractive. Although I dug them out each spring, the bulbs continued to return and multiply until we finally tore down the garage and built a slightly larger one on the site. So, now those dratted bulbs are buried under a concrete pad. RIP, stars-of-Bethlehem!

  7. To Evelyn Wolf, Sept. 16

    Hi Evelyn,

    Thanks for the report on your over abundance of star-of-Bethlehem. Yes, it has found an ideal niche in your garden — whatever you're providing is just what it wants, and more. I use this bulb to grow where nothing else will, and that seems to keep it in check, while beautifying an otherwise empty space. I guess you've been too good to it.

    — Judith

  8. Hi Judith –

    I've been a huge fan of your writing for many years! I can't agree with promoting the planting of Ornithogalum umbellatum though.

    I fell in love with the delicate blooms many years ago but learned it can quickly become a real nuisance once allowed to drop seed. EVERY seed appears to germinate, and it has become my "weed" that pops up everywhere – and because it's a bulb, I can't just yank it, each and every seedling has to be dug up. If a gardener is vigilant about snipping the seed heads before they drop, then it's a lovely addition to the garden, but let it get away from you just once and you're chasing seedlings for years!

    Cheers! Evelyn


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