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Another Pretty Problem

All over my yard, flower stalks are rising on the star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum). Soon I’ll see clusters of 3/4-inch, sparkling white flowers like six-petaled stars, the underside green with white margins; and in the center, a little crown of yellow stamens.

Before the flowers, the leaves too are attractive: bright, clear, mid-green, slender, eight to ten inches tall in my yard, almost grass-like — but more substantial, and with a central silver stripe. It’s easy to mistake them for crocus leaves, which are only a little wider. Also like crocus, they grow from small bulbs — but multiply much more rapidly. Young Ornithogalum bulbs may put up just one leaf; mature bulbs (or more likely, bulb clusters) produce a clump, spreading much wider than the spray of leaves from a crocus crown.

Young leaves stand straight and perky, dotting the yard with welcome color before the grass has even greened up. I do enjoy the sight.

But I also feel torn. Because the few weeks before these plants flower is the only time they can be pulled up. Why would I want to get rid of such a pretty plant? Two reasons. By the time the plant blooms, the leaves have drooped, then fallen limply to the ground, some even started to yellow. By the time the pretty flowers are gone, the leaves lie in an ugly dying pile. Then it’s difficult even to dig out the plants, because after you loosen the soil you still can’t extract the bulbs by lifting the crown: the leaves just tear off.

Secondly, they’ re too prolific. Although they prefer moist soils, and along stream banks are even more invasive than in my garden, they do fine in my dry soil because they get enough moisture in the spring, while they’re growing, and don’t care if it gets dry when they’re dormant. They keep springing up all over, and they grow fast. The Invasive Plant Atlas of New England says they don’t know whether the plants spread by seed here, but if not, the bulbs sure manage to spread well.

The plant, native to Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, is now spread throughout most of the contiguous United States. In 1940 the first large stands were reported in Indiana forests, crowding out native plants. It’s poisonous, and may be fatal to grazing animals.

Still its beauty tempts me to put off getting rid of the plant.

Photo by C.H. Clark - Star-of-Bethlehem flowers, with leaves flopped on the ground

Text and photo © Copyright 2005 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 20 May 2005

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For more information
  • Ornithogalum umbellatum - its page at IPANE, the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England.
  • Ornithogalum umbellatun - Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide. This page has better pictures, but it still doesn't show how ugly the leaves get after the plant flowers!